Learning vs Performance – The Dichotomy



The shift has happened. The focus has moved from “learning” to “performance”. “Training” as a panacea for all ills – from lack of productivity to lack of motivation, attrition, and lost profits – is losing its power. Our education system had inculcated the belief that “learning” is all about gaining information and knowledge and being able to remember that long enough to answer exam questions. The standardized tests verified everyone’s capabilities against the same parameters. The lucky few whose capabilities matched the parameters came out with flying colors. The rest of us went on to believe we were stupid or incapable. The report card with the grades in bold attested the belief. Today, Google and the Internet has eliminated the need to remember information. The basic premise of standardized schooling is (hopefully) vanishing.

This mode of rote learning carried over into the workplace along with the prerequisite for conformity. The industrial era required the completion of standardized work and obedient workers who would follow pre-defined processes. So, a loop of training followed by application of the knowledge and processes learnt became the norm. It was “learn, then work.” Through repeated application, employees gained expertise and efficiency was a direct outcome. Supervision and appraisals were centered on safeguarding conformance. Those deviating from set processes wasted valuable time – their own and others – and were speedily brought to book. Managers devised process improvement; the workers were re-trained on the new and improved processes, where applicable. There was no need for a holistic understanding since everyone had to focus on their part of the process. Everything worked beautifully like the veritable machine it was.

With the passing of the industrial era, the ground began shifting under everyone’s feet. One world was dead and the other still powerless to be born…Process optimization and re-optimization, process engineering and re-engineering – nothing seemed to be working. The premise that one could be trained first and then put on-the-job was based on the ability to transfer explicit knowledge and tried and tested processes. Training looked backward on what had worked in the past. Training didn’t teach the meta-skills of learning nor did it foster the abilities for creative thinking, innovation and pattern sensing – all necessary 21C skills. Most importantly, training couldn’t capture tacit knowledge and nor could it prepare the employees for a rapidly changing landscape. Training wasn’t necessarily leading to the desired performance outcome anymore. It’s rapidly becoming evident that training will increasingly have a tiny role to play in workplace learning and performance. Frameworks like the 70:20:10 has espoused this for many years now. So I won’t repeat any of those points. I will instead focus on few other aspects that we (L&D) miss out or don’t focus on enough when thinking of workplace performance in the Knowledge Era.

In this context, a discussion with a friend led me to the video on Knowing-Doing Gap by Bob Proctor. He brings up some interesting aspects of the conscious and the unconscious mind. What I found particularly interesting as a learning designer is his description of the conscious mind as an information gathering tool. I urge you to see the video. While he brings a coaching angle to it, the mention of paradigm shifts and the need to tap into the unconscious mind is important – more so in today’s context – where information gathering no longer yields the results it earlier did. To be successful at acquiring new skills at the speed of need, we need to be able to tap into our unconscious mind which is the seat of our paradigms. The question is, “How does this information impact us, the L&D folks”. I think this could have a huge impact. Some further research into the Knowing-Doing Gap led me to his website:http://www.coedu.usf.edu/zalaquett/kdg.html#terminology. This summarizes the various reasons behind the existence of such gaps, including explicit and tacit knowledge, subconscious paradigms, limiting beliefs, fixed vs. growth mindset, fear of failure, and so on.

We know that effective learning leads to visible behavior change. That is, it has a direct impact on performance. People should start to do things differently. However, we also know that a training program – even a well-designed one – doesn’t guarantee any behavior change. Training is an event. The effect of the Forgetting Curve sets in soon after the event is over. For visible performance outcome, we need to enable paradigm shifts. This goes beyond the realm of training or even informal and social learning. IMHO, individuals participate in social learning only when they believe that this will lead to performance improvement and professional growth. This in turn requires the fostering of agrowth mindset and a letting go of limiting beliefs – both critical paradigm shifts. One of the reasons why enterprise collaboration platforms aren’t always used effectively could be that employees don’t believe it will help them. Add to this a fear of failure and unwillingness to expose one’s ignorance, and sharing and collaboration – the pillars of social learning – fall apart. Without a shift in these important paradigms, it could be difficult to see a change in performance in spite of putting in place every possible support.

A quick summary of each of the paradigms mentioned above shows how these could probably have an impact on the overall performance of each individual, and on the organization as a whole:

  • Growth mindset – Carol Dweck, in her research, differentiated between Fixed Mindset and Growth Mindset. For someone harboring a fixed mindset, it could be difficult to see how engaging in social learning and collaborating could make them perform better. Since they believe that intelligence is static, this can become an obstacle to change in behavior. On the other hand, people with growth mindset are likely to take every opportunity to pull the resources they need to perform better. They are usually the ones to volunteer information, ask questions and try out new ways of doing things. Recognizing those with a fixed mindset and providing them with the necessary support and coaching could lead to better performance.
  • Limiting beliefs – Related to fixed mindset, limiting beliefs constrain us in many ways. While as learning designers we may well think that someone’s personal limiting beliefs are not within our purview of work, it’s a reality that limiting beliefs can often adversely impact the outcome we expect. Hence, as L&D, we need to dig deeper and check for this, and if necessary, enable employees to overcome these through coaching, mentoring, job rotation, and so on. Even a well-designed programs will fail to achieve the desired performance outcome if not supported through other means. An interesting post on limiting beliefs here. People with growth mindset typically have enabling beliefs that take them forward. Thus, the same program and similar support can elicit different performance outcomes depending on whether the employee has a fixed mindset and limiting beliefs or the other binary – growth mindset with enabling beliefs.
  • Fear of failures – This could directly stem from the organizational culture and environment. An organisation that’s intolerant of mistakes, reprimands failures and discourages risk-taking isn’t likely to see a whole lot of change. Employees will find it safer to stick to the old ways than experiment with new ones. An enterprise collaboration platform might lie unused because employees don’t wish to display their ignorance.

It is important for L&D to recognize and take into consideration some of these so that when facilitating the learning-performance loop in organizations, they can focus on enabling the required changes. By facilitating an ecosystem that goes beyond training, L&D can enable performance change. The training represents one component – the formal one – of such an ecosystem. The knowledge and skills acquired via training could be supported through other means – informal and social – which is illustrated below:

These are just some of the associated factors that can have an impact on the overall performance of an organization. While orgs strive to design effective programs, create performance support tools, facilitate enterprise-wide collaboration by putting in place social platforms, and encourage transparency and sharing, they may still encounter less-than optimal performance and resistance. Probing may reveal some of the causes to be related to what is discussed here.     



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