Tony Karrer's eLearning Blog on e-Learning Trends eLearning 2.0 Personal Learning Informal Learning eLearning Design Authoring Tools Rapid e-Learning Tools Blended e-Learning e-Learning Tools Learning Management Systems (LMS) e-Learning ROI and Metrics

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Learning Performance Business Talent Focus

One of the more interesting aspects of the discussions I've had over the past few weeks as I prepare for the free online conference on the future of learning is the perspective on the focus and scope of responsibility of internal learning organizations and external learning/training companies.

Caveat: This is definitely not a new issue. I'm not really claiming any great new insights.  It's a first cut at a developing mental model.  This is only partially formed and I need help to flesh out my thinking.

Please let me know what you think.

  • Does this ring true? 
  • Does the model work for you? 
  • Do you similarly hear these kinds of clues?  And what other clues do you use to identify?
  • What are the implications? 

With all that said, I believe that I'm beginning to get a handle on the differences in focus that people bring to bear around their responsibilities.  The following crude diagram captures a bit of it:


I'm finding that learning professionals of all types (IDs, CLOs, VP Learning, C-level at Training Company, etc.) tend to own a different view of their responsibilities in this space.

  • Learning – Responsible for ensuring learning objectives are achieved regardless of the delivery mode.
  • Talent – Responsible for ensuring that talent is analyzed, selected and developed to meet the needs of the organization. 
  • Performance – Responsible for ensuring that behavior change occurs in a way that improves performance.
  • Business – Responsible for ensuring that business objectives are met.

Know the "Right Answer"

Let's say that we are interviewing a potential new learning professional.  We pose the question to them:

What do you see as the responsibility of a learning organization?

Many (probably most) learning professionals are smart enough to be able to answer the question such that they focus on creating solutions that are ultimately about all of these.  They would position themselves right in the middle of the diagram.  This is, of course, the right answer although a very adept job seeker will be able to adjust the answer quickly based on the focus on the organization that's doing the interviewing.

If you've done much interviewing in your life, you know that asking this kind of question is most often not effective.  Instead, it's much better to find out by asking about specific examples of projects they've worked on and listen to the focus.  You ask about things like the types of solutions that they've used, what were the objectives, how did they tackle the problems, etc.

Of course, I'm not interviewing people for a job.  Normally, I'm talking to people with the goal of getting help on particular needs, e.g., how is social learning being used in insurance companies or other highly regulated industries, how does this technology work out in practice, what other things should I be looking at to solve this issue.  In this case, I've had a bunch of conversations around the Business of Learning and this model is somewhat falling out from the discussions.  But it's still conversations and I'm coming to fairly quickly recognize some clues that indicate the focus of the individual.

So what are some clues about the focus that you can listen for?

Learning Focus Clues

The person is showing learning focus when you hear:

"… learning objectives … "

"… learners …"

"We have very limited budget and our focus needs to be on building critical, core skills."

"I wish we had the time and money to spend on informal and social learning solutions."

"We want to make sure that our informal learning still ensures that we meet the learning objectives?"

"Our trainers don't have time to get involved with the learners after the training."

Performance Focus Clues

The person is showing performance focus when you hear:

"behavior change"

"performer support"

"toolkits and job aids"

"involve the managers"

"back on the job"


Business Focus Clues

The person is showing business focus when you hear:

"customer satisfaction" (or a host of other business metrics)

"metrics" (and they don't mean Level 1 and 2)

"move the needle"

"we probably don't need much training"

Talent Focus Clues

The person is showing performance focus when you hear:

"fill the talent pipeline"

"talent mix"

"job profiles"

"succession planning"


"recruiting and selection"

"performance review process"

Notes, Questions and Thoughts

Unfair Bias around Learning Focus?

As I wrote down the clues that indicate a learning focus, I felt I was being unfair.  I've talked to a lot of very smart people who clearly have the learning focus.  I respect them, consider them to be valuable contributors, and feel like I'm being unfair when I put down those clues.  I feel I should somehow even this out a bit.  But I wasn't sure how.

Obviously, this is partly personal bias.  All things being equal (which they never are), I'm guessing my focus is more a business and performance focus.  I was a professor for 11 years and still do lots of presentations and workshops where clearly the focus is learning.  Certainly Work Literacy has a learning and performance focus and is a passion of mine.  But day-to-day, my passion and where I probably play best are things like data driven solutions.  Working on eHarmony for its first 4 years with a combined purpose of making money, making better marriages and supporting a rather complex performance was fantastic.  Working with emerging or established companies is fantastic.  Looking at social learning as a performance mechanism is fantastic.  So maybe I have a strong bias towards business, performance, and then learning and that's why it doesn't sound quite right the way I've positioned it.

You will notice I didn't say much about talent focus.  I'm know about it.  I do work in it.  I've actually done data driven solutions in that space.  But it's not my normal focus and I feel a little bit removed from a talent focus.  I definitely struggle the most when talking with people who have a very strong talent focus.

So, I'm really not sure how to level this playing field a bit so that my bias is not coming through.  Thoughts?

Also, I'm sure that most people do flow between these things a bit, but have a more natural home.  I'm not quite sure how that fits into this whole discussion.

Separation of Performance and Business Focus?

I debated on separating performance and business focus.  You may notice that they two overlap more than most of the other sections.  That's intentional.  I believe that there are quite a few people who take a combined business and performance focus.  There are relatively fewer who are dominant on the performance focus – but occasionally I run into people who seem to come at it with that focus.

Talent and Performance Intersection?

When I first did the diagram I intentionally did not have an intersection point right in the middle – and specifically it excluded intersection of Talent and Performance. 

Most people who I talk to who have a talent focus seem to come at this whole picture from a completely different angle.  They describe goals in terms of looking at the overall mix of talent in the organization.  They look at the picture much more holistically.  They are quite often trying to align this with top level goals of the organization, but in many cases they really are not talking about moving the needle.  They care about learning as part of development and to build important competencies in the organization and to fill the talent pipeline.  So, intersection with learning and business – not necessarily focus – is clear.

Intersection between talent and performance seems less common.  Normally the folks who look at the big picture talent issues are far removed from day-to-day behavior and performance.  They would claim that they look at it in terms of skills and competencies.  They need to know about behavior in the form of job profiles, selection, performance reviews, etc.  But the reality is that they are typically not thinking about what it takes to directly help to get the sales people to sell more, or change how retail sales managers get the associates to act in a way that improves customer satisfaction, etc.  They won't be building a job aid anytime soon.  They are likely not talking to the performers or facilitating interactions on the job to get performance to improve.  It's a level indirect from that.

As I said, I initially put these as non-intersecting, and then I thought about people who work directly with sales management that really do take a look across all of these issues.  I'm not saying that all sales management improvement professionals take this approach, but certainly some do.  They look at who the sales people are, how they get selected, the comp packages.  But they also look at the sales support materials, sales meetings.  They get in and get dirty day-to-day.  So, clearly this kind of dual focus exists, especially around specific goals.

Organizational Expectations

When I discussed the "right answer", I pointed out that an adept learning professional seeking a job would quickly adapt to the interviewer and make sure that their answer corresponded to what the person wanted to hear.  You would listen for clues and use the language that fits.  Same as what I just described.

Of course, that happens in organizations as well.  The collection of people in the organization establish what the expectation is around focus.  If they expect you to have a learning focus and deliver formal training solutions and not bother them back on the job when they are doing real work, you will quickly find yourself taking a learning focus in order to fit. 

Meaning and Use of the Model?

I debated on whether this model is useful and meaningful enough to post.  It's pretty much an internal mental model that developed based on many discussions (and really many years).  That doesn't mean it will make sense for anyone else.  Nor does it necessarily suggest that it's useful.

So, can you tell me whether this makes any sense to you?

In terms of use, for a long time – without having thought through this model, I've known that there's incredible friction trying to move someone from a particular focus.  This comes up all the time in practice:

  • To convince someone who's primarily learning focused to spend time and effort on solutions that come after training, you need to talk about it in terms of additional learning transfer opportunities.  The learning won't stick unless we get out there after they are back on the job and reinforce it.  We can talk about "office hours" where learners come together to discuss issues they face when they are back on the job.  And you know going in that this all will be a tough sell.
  • You need to talk to most talent focused people in talent terms.  If you have a toolkit / set of job aids, you need to talk about it in terms of reducing the time to competence or how it fits with development planning.
  • If you are talking to business or performance focused people, prepare to get in and get dirty.  You need to be prepared to be in there working with the people to get the performance to change or the needle to move.  I'd suggest not using the words "learning objective" … they may perceive you as "one of those people" … they'll let you know when they will need some of that kind of thing. 

But this is more than language.  It translates into how they think about tackling problems and the kinds of solutions that they consider. 


Again – this is all partially formed and I'm really hoping that you will weigh in with thoughts.


Anonymous said...

I was struck by how disconeccted I was to the inclusion of talent. I get that it's vital and important. every time I have talked about it I have repeated the catch phrases that are expected, but without any real passion for the intersection. I started my career with a business focus and then moved into performance before coming to learning.
This spring I heard a football coach comment regarding the draft (or thier talent selection). He said "Doesn't matter to me, I coach whoever gets off the bus"
I feel that as a learning professional I must focus on the business and perfomance space, how I do that is through the learning focus I bring. Our clients don't care how it's done they just want learning that makes a difference. Business leaders want the results, as you deliver them they will start to grow thier intrest in the learning space.
Rob Bartlett

Gary Wise said...

Good morning, Tony!

I can see this (or variations) of the diagram shaped by different perspectives and personal biases - cultural - competitiveness - sustainability - just to name three.

In every scenario there could be an overlap as you have drawn them with three of the four rings within the fourth depending on whichever one represents the dominant perspective characterizing the organization.

As an example, when I look at this, my background immediately skews my thinking to "How would I implement this model?" To satisfy my bias, I could even see a fifth ring labeled "technology" since it enables the work context of the other four.

To you interview question - regardless of persuasion, I feel that articulating an underlying linkage to the need to drive sustained capability is at the root of the answer - regardless of whichever of the four rings represent your home bias.

Gary Wise

Tony Karrer said...

Rob - that's a great analogy about the coach and whether they are involved in selection. Of course, it's a much bigger problem in the business world. The system is not designed to try to keep parity. And we've all been through the cases where we are trying to improve customer satisfaction with people who were not selected based on factors that are consistent with that goal. Or other similar challenges.

That said - I normally just hear us complaining rather than being able to actually do much about it.

Gary - great points. And I think you might be showing your focus with your comment about linkage to the business issue. I've been in a lot of conversations where there clearly was not much of a concern about that as compared to getting the best 4 hours of content that could be produced. I'm sure they were aware of the linkage to the business issue - but it wasn't a focus.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tony,

To your question of whether this makes sense. Yes, absolutely.

I too found myself oblivious to the talent dimension. That is something that is not a focus of my current role.

I struggled with an alternative schematic to the overlaping circles. I see Business, Performance and Learning as a hierarchy. It all starts with business, followed by a need for certain performance to achieve those business goals, then learning objectives to support that.

I think of building a talent pipeline as another dimension that follows the same priciples, but applies for a different purpose than training people for their current job.

My two cents.

I really found this article a good read...thanks.


jon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jon said...

Tony, I see the talent component as a large part of my sphere of influence and one that has a large impact to business performance especially in these times. Our company is in a great financial position to grow through acquisition, and the success of these acquisitions rests on the ability of our current employees to "step up" and lead new efforts in new areas. If we don't have talent that is ready for this transition then we may miss opportunities. I don't believe that any learning organization can deliver all of the experiences that will make our leaders ready to step up, but they can create leaders who know how to develop their teams. So to validate your model we provide performance support solutions that help leaders to better develop the talent on their teams. I can't see any of this this working without full integration of your 4 elements.
-Jon Folkestad

Catherine Lombardozzi said...

I’m a little behind my blog reading, so here’s a quick reaction to what you posted last week regarding the intersection of learning, performance, talent, and business.

You said learning-focused people would say…
"… learning objectives … "
"… learners …"
"We have very limited budget and our focus needs to be on building critical, core skills."
"I wish we had the time and money to spend on informal and social learning solutions."
"We want to make sure that our informal learning still ensures that we meet the learning objectives?"
"Our trainers don't have time to get involved with the learners after the training."

Your comments are a little narrow in that some of them seem to imply that learning people are only focused on training solutions. I think you’ll hear the first three things… but then you’ll hear: I want to use informal and social learning solutions to support competency development.” “We want to make sure we make a variety of learning assets easily accessible so that we support informal learning as well.” And please, I hope, we would never say the last thing… we’d say “Our trainers need to be able to support competency development in a wide variety of ways, including classroom training, virtual training, online community management, and coaching support (to name a few).”

To me the bottom line is that learning-focused people are intent on developing knowledge and skill. The most impactful learning-focused people have a strong understanding of the business goals, performance context and desired on-the-job behaviors, and how all of those relate to the talent management strategy.

My two cents… from a learning-focused professional. :-)