It is important for those of us who work in learning and development to be mindful that for any given situation, learning alone may not be an appropriate solution. But how do we make that determination? We have to look for root causes. If the root cause for a gap in performance is not a gap in skill or knowledge, then learning will not address that gap.
We sometimes use the simple analogy of an airplane. You could give me a fully functional airplane and an open runway, and I still couldn't get it off the ground. There is a clear skill and knowledge gap that keeps me out of the clouds. But, you could give an ace pilot a plane with no fuel in the tanks and end up with the same result. For the ace pilot, there is no skill or knowledge barrier, but a barrier in the system in which the pilot works: The plane is improperly equipped.
Barriers or Root Causes for Performance GapsWhen we look at the system or environment in which people work, we find six categories of root causes—all of which can prevent successful performance, and none of which can be directly addressed by learning initiatives.
Clarity of Roles and Expectations
People cannot perform successfully if they don't understand what is expected of them. If they're not sure what their role is, how can they gauge their own success? Consider our airplane example again, but this time add a co-pilot. If the pilot and co-pilot are not clear about their roles, each will likely hinder the other's performance. It's important to know who's flying the plane!
Coaching and Reinforcement
The number one reason that skills developed through learning solutions do not transfer to improvement in on-the-job performance is lack of coaching and reinforcement. The importance of coaching is highlighted in ATD's April 2018 report, Organizational Performance Improvement, in which 60 percent of respondents identified coaching as the most effective solution for improving performance.
People must feel fairly compensated for the work they perform. But, incentives go beyond just financial rewards. Intangible incentives, such as opportunities to work on interesting, meaningful projects, are also needed to support performance.
Work Systems and Processes
In their 1995 book Improving Performance, Geary Rummler and Alan Brache noted, "If you pit a good employee against a bad system, the system will win almost every time." Systems and processes must align with the way we want people to work or they become a barrier to performance. Consider our ace pilot again. He may be responsible for taking off at a specific time (he's probably also skilled enough and well incentivized to make this happen). But, if the system in which he works fails to provide a plane that is well maintained, fueled, and loaded before it's time to take off, the pilot cannot perform as expected.
Access to Information, People, Tools, and Job Aids
Today's work environments are more and more complex. People are expected to resolve complicated problems with little guidance. Because of this, access to appropriate information and tools is increasingly important. Emphasis is on the word appropriate here—some people feel awash in information, people, and tools—but they need to have the right resources at the right time if they are to perform successfully.
In evaluating learning programs over the years, I've interviewed program participants after they've started trying to apply new skills on the job. A story I've heard frequently across industries is that someone approached a participant soon after a program and said something like, "I don't know what they told you in that training, but that's not how we do things around here." This is clear evidence of a lack of a supportive culture! If we ask people to perform in ways counter to the prevailing culture in an organization, they are unlikely to be successful.
Removing BarriersWe can reframe these six barriers by thinking of them as organizational capability needs—things we need the organization or system to provide if successful performance is to occur. The barriers become factors, and are therefore neutral. If they’re in place and well executed, they can promote performance. If they are absent or poorly executed, they become barriers to performance.
When any of these six barriers are present, learning initiatives can do little to directly resolve them. Removing some of these barriers will require partnerships with organizational areas outside our talent development comfort zones. Also, for a given situation, multiple barriers may exist and multiple solutions will be required to address them. So, even when we do implement learning initiatives, we should consider what additional barriers might exist and work to remove them. Otherwise, like the plane in our analogy, our efforts to improve performance might not make it off the ground.