In 1990, Peter Senge introduced the “Learning Organization”1 concept. It was primarily envisioned to enable a holistic approach to resolving business problems. Over the decades, progressive training organizations actively attempted to transform themselves into Learning Organizations with the goal of fulfilling Senge’s vision.
Upon reviewing the +30 year evolution of Learning Organizations, It’s clear that Learning Organizations have largely followed the path of many other corporate organizations and “siloed” into a singular mission. Instead of being part of a holistic approach to resolving problems as envisioned by Senge, Learning Organizations remained responsible and accountable only to training and learning. Today, Learning Organizations are roundly criticized for promoting one miraculous learning theory after another, spending great sums of time and money on a carousel of training and learning technologies, and for basing their value on the number of new programs developed, numbers of employees trained, high test scores, and happy trainee anecdotes. Among the greatest challenges Learning Organizations face is the inability to report the return on their investment.
There’s an old saying that goes, “Nobody buys a drill because they need a drill; they buy a drill because they need a hole.” A similar analogy can be applied to Learning Organizations, “Nobody buys training and learning initiatives because they need training and learning; they buy training and learning because they need to improve worker performance.”
The biggest problem with Learning Organizations is, they have no responsibility or accountability for performance.
When discussing worker performance with a Learning Organization professional their position will likely indicate performance improvement is impossible without learning. This was almost completely true in the 18th century but has since been gradually dispelled with the advent of performance aids including photography, audio recordings, video, printed checklists, phone and radio calls, and more. Over time, the technologies used to aid performance matured to include pocket calculators and on-demand instructions delivered via personal computers, smart phones, and other devices. In the 21st century, there are many ways to enable performance without prior learning. In fact, according to a recent Google study, 86% of US YouTube users report choosing YouTube to perform new skills.2 With new performance support technologies, it isn’t always necessary to learn/memorize tasks prior to performing them and the egg may indeed precede the chicken.
Looking to the future, if nothing changes, 21st century Learning Organizations will continue to only offer training and learning systems as solutions to business problems whereas Performance Organizations may recommend a performance support system to perform assigned processes without prior learning along with process improvement, staffing adjustments, and other non-performer interventions. To be clear, performance support systems not only enable workers to perform tasks by following step-by-step instructions, when used often enough to perform “learnable”3 tasks, memorization/learning could easily occur without any prior training.
The goal of Learning Organizations is to improve training and learning, therefore, they are focused on data related to the number of people trained, the number of programs delivered, how well participants like their training, and average test scores. The goal of Performance Organizations is to improve performance. They are focused on performance enablement, performance assurance, and continuous performance improvement. Performance Organizations require valid, unbiased, reliable performance data. The differences between Learning and Performance Organizations are vast. Learning Organizations may be positioned as a department within Performance Organizations, but the key differentiator is the data captured and reported and how that data is used.
Data captured and used by Learning Organizations are almost exclusively intended to improve training and learning and primarily encompass nominal, ordinal, and subjective information. The test scores, which are offered as proof of learning, are derived from tests administered during or immediately upon completing a training program. Such testing misrepresents learning because research as far back as 1885 proves that up to 60% of all training content is forgotten within 1 hour of ending the program and up to 90% is lost after 7 days3 without spaced repetition (practice). Furthermore, the data Learning Organizations capture has little to no relevance outside the Learning Organization as there is no responsibility or accountability to follow up low test scores with coaching or to offer post-training practice opportunities.
Performance Organizations: 1) Enable performance with little to no advance training by delivering step-by-step instructions on demand, 2) Assure performance by delivering work instructions in the proper sequence every time and alerting management when a critical step appears to have been under-performed, 3) Support continuous improvement by reporting the captured performance interval data in ways that reveal not only individual worker needs at process step detail, but also non-worker factors including staffing, equipment, policy, management, and other needs, and 4) Follow up performance data with individualized coaching, new equipment, process changes, or any other performance improvement intervention necessary to resolve exposed performance improvement opportunities.
Benefits of Updating from Learning Organizations to Performance Organizations
The immediate and short-term benefits of migrating from a Learning Organization to a Performance Organization include, 1) Enabling savings derived by multiple organizational functions including compensation administration, industrial engineering, organizational development, and operations sharing and making decisions based on the same valid, unbiased, reliable performance data, 2) Developing more efficient and effective performance improvement initiatives through inter department collaboration, and 3) Shifting budgets to enable holistic, continuous improvement programs.
Using new technologies to enable, assure, and continuously improve performance reduces reliance on: a) Manual time and motion studies, b) Training and learning programs and systems including memorization tests, uber-expensive video content, learning management systems, learning record stores, VR/AR systems, and c) Invalid, biased, and unreliable performance data for continuous improvement decision making.
Possibly the greatest longer-term benefit of migrating from a Learning to Performance Organization is the ability to more efficiently and effectively respond to change. The acceleration of innovation and change will certainly and dramatically increase the amount of “unlearnable” work processes that will, nonetheless, need to be performed4. No amount of training, learning, or memorization is effective when, 1) There are more processes than can be memorized, 2) Process steps change too often to memorize, 3) Processes have more steps than can be memorized, 4) Processes are performed too infrequently to memorize, and 5) The time available to memorize new processes is decreased by rising employee turnover rates.5
The Performance Organization concept is gaining traction among the business and performance improvement community. To add your “systems thinking” to the conversation, contact Bill Crose or join the “Performance Organization” LinkedIN group. https://www.linkedin.com/groups/9152661/
1 Senge, Peter M. (1990), The Fifth Discipline, Doubleday/Currency, ISBN 0-385-26094-6
3 Not all tasks are “Learnable”. Learnable tasks are those performed often enough to memorize, that can be memorized in the allotted time, with few enough steps to memorize, and steps that are stable enough to memorize.
Bill Crose is the founder and CEO of Adyton and inventor of the PythiaTM verbal workflow management system. He has 30 years of experience in the performance improvement and learning technology disciplines. Bill has an MS in Instructional Design from Western Michigan University, holds 2 patents, and 1 patent pending for performance improvement technologies.