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The Target Remains the Same: Improve Performance, Boost the Bottom Line

Monday, June 25, 2018

Bill Rothwell.jpg
The ATD Competency Model defines the skills and knowledge required for talent development professionals to be successful now and in the future. It answers the questions: What do training and development practitioners need to know and do to be successful, now and in the future? and How do they prepare for that future faster than ever before? Consultant and professor William J. Rothwell played a big part in conducting the competency study that lays the foundation for the model.

Bill has been a training and development professional since 1979. As president of Rothwell & Associates, he offers consulting services around the globe and presents ideas from his more than 100 books. As a professor, he heads up a top-ranked program in learning and performance for Pennsylvania State University. In 2012, he was honored with ATD's Distinguished Contribution to Workplace Learning and Performance Award, and in 2013 he was again honored by the ATD Certification Institute by being appointed a Certified Professional in Learning and Performance Fellow.

With Bill’s pedigree and experience, there was little question that he would take part in our series of interviews with industry experts to mark ATD’s 75th year. Here’s what he had to say about where the field of talent development has been, where it is going, and what professionals need to succeed.

You’ve been practicing in the field of talent development for some time. How did you land on this career?

Rothwell: I was pursuing a Ph.D. in English in the 1970s, having already earned my master’s and undergraduate degrees. I taught business and technical writing to college seniors while pursuing my degree, and I noted that many colleagues could not find jobs in English after finishing their degrees. I read a career development book that pointed me toward the training and development field and then took a graduate course in the field. After that I decided to look for a job while redirecting my education to a newly created doctorate program in HRD and an MBA degree program at the same time. I found a job in training to teach technical writing but within six months found a job to be a training director. At that point I needed the courses I was taking in HRD. Eventually, I earned my Ph.D. in HRD and my MBA with a specialty in human resource management while working as a training director in the field full time.

You took part in developing the ATD Competency Model. With that as a backdrop, what are the must-have skills for TD professionals today? What skills do you predict will be more important in the future?

Rothwell: It is true that I have been a leader of ATD competency studies since my first ASTD Models of Human Performance Improvement in 1996 and more recent studies in 1999, 2004, and 2013. I also did an ASTD-sponsored “pulse study” between the 2004 and 2013 published studies. I have also led competency studies of the field offshore in specific nations. Since 1987, I have published more than 110 books in the field. With that by way of background, I would say that must-have skills include performance analysis and change management theory, as they are defined in the ASTD Competency Study: The Training and Development Profession Redefined (2013). It is important to analyze performance to discover the root causes of human performance problems before identifying solutions. If that is done wrong, then everything following it will also be wrong! It also is important to understand how to implement corporate culture change in organizational settings, and for that reason there is growing interest in the field of organization development.

I believe applying innovation will be a key skill in the future. In our field, that means we must be leaders who inspire others to be innovative to gain competitive advantage through discovery of new ideas. As practitioners, we must realize that we can gain improved human performance through a staggeringly large array of methods that go well beyond the so-called 70-20-10 rule (in which 70 percent of development should occur on the job, 20 percent through peer interaction and social learning, and only 10 percent through formal online or onsite learning).

For instance, performance also can be improved by changing the way the work is done, and that will (of course) change the skills needed to do that work. Therefore, training needed to build those skills! Stated another way, we can get significant productivity gains if we do more than training and consider who does the work, what work they do, when they work, where they work, why they work, and how they work. We should never forget that the goal is to get improved performance and not be corporate schoolteachers or run training because some people have fun in adult learning games or other experiential experiences!

You’ve seen a lot of trends take center stage and then pass out of the limelight. What current trends do you think have staying power and potential to shake up our industry?

Rothwell: When we examine trends, we can break them down by general trends affecting the work and workplace; general trends affecting the economy, technology, demographics, legal/competitive issues; and other issues often examined in environmental scans. But we can also consider trends within our field and, more specifically, trends within each of the Areas of Expertise (AOEs) of our field, as identified by the ATD Competency Model. I say all that because I could probably write many books on trends. But let me just point to several current trends that I think will have staying power.

One trend is the move away from work in group work settings to virtual work and telework. Already many workers would rather do their work at home rather than fight traffic to drive to work (or take crowded trains or buses in urban settings). Work in offices also has the disadvantage of often requiring greater investments in dress. (Working in pajamas at home is a lot more fun—and a lot cheaper—than laying out big money for professional attire!) Working from home can also save some people money on childcare and eldercare costs, which are outrageously expensive in many places, and can sometimes lead to increased productivity when distractions like watercooler talk are reduced or even eliminated.

The trend toward virtual work is also supported by the move away from education in group settings, such as classrooms to virtual learning and m-learning. While those trends have many advantages, they also pose future challenges: How can we get people to interact interpersonally more effectively whether in physical groups or in virtual groups?

Personally, I think we are also seeing a move toward two kinds of learning events: those that are intended to convey past or present knowledge based on experience, and those that are intended to generate new knowledge and new approaches. Training and learning has traditionally focused on the former, helping onboard new staff and convey lessons gained from experience. (When we do task analysis, for instance, we are formalizing what has been learned in the past.) But increasingly, group settings—whether online or onsite—can be effectively used to generate new ideas about ways to serve customers, outsmart competitors, leverage competitive advantages, and come up with new innovations.

In general, how is the industry different than when you started practicing? How is it the same?


Rothwell: I would say most things are the same. You know the saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” I think that summarizes much in our field. I think the biggest thing that is the same is that, in the early days of my career in the 1970s, I heard many practitioners complain, “Managers do not listen to our advice.” I still hear that complaint too often! Meanwhile, managers complain that training is not adequately meeting business needs.

Sometimes that complaint takes the form of a request for return-on-investment (ROI) information. But experienced trainers know that, when managers ask for ROI information, it is often already too late and is often a trick. If managers ask for ROI, they are already convinced that the training was a waste of time. But if they do not ask for ROI, then training made inroads in solving (or partially solving) the human performance problem. So requests for ROI are sometimes smokescreens to conceal the managers’ skepticism.

A major change is probably the use of technology. When I started, nobody used computers. I worked in a large multinational company (an insurance company, an SBU of a Fortune 50 conglomerate) as assistant vice president and management development director. My immediate supervisor (VP) saw a new dual floppy-drive PC on my elegant walnut desk and asked, “What is that?” I told him, “It is a computer.” (And I bought that computer myself because the company would not.) He said, “Get rid of it. It looks incredibly ugly on your desk! You have a secretary to do the work you can do with that thing.” Although I was the first executive in the company to have a PC, within one year he had a PC, too.

What do you want people in other lines of business to understand about the work of talent development?

Rothwell: Unfortunately, few managers are trained on how to analyze performance problems with human beings. They may be smart about financial and marketing issues, but they are often not so good when dealing with people and human performance problems. So, what I would like people in other lines of business to understand about the work of talent development is that it is a legitimate field and is just as important as accounting, finance, marketing, sales, IT, engineering, and so on. Too often, some arrogant managers think they are experts on people problems when, in fact, they are abysmally bad. One clue: What’s the company turnover rate? While managers may want to blame the company’s pay practices based on the results of poorly-managed exit interview systems, the research tells us that people quit their bosses and not their jobs.

I also wish managers would realize that there are many more ways to deal with human problems than to “send people off to training.” I want managers to realize that training is not (and should not be) a “feel-good” activity that can be cut when times are hard. Done right, training is a strategy to make people productive faster after time of hire, keep workers’ skills current as work changes due to new technology and other pressures, and prepare people for more or different responsibilities over time. If training is done right, no manager in his or her right mind would want to cut it when times are hard because it is so closely tied to getting and keeping people productive that cutting it would lead to direct, noticeable losses to company productivity and profitability!

What is one change you'd like to see in our field? What can practitioners do to make that change a reality?

Rothwell: There is more than one change I would like to see in our field. And I think there is much research that could make conditions better for practitioners. Let me list a few. First, there is a growing need to study not only the competencies of trainers or talent development professionals, but we also should study the competencies of learners! (See my book, The Workplace Learner.)

Next, we should examine the conditions that organizations and their leaders should establish to encourage people to learn to solve real-time work problems and what barriers get in the way of people wanting to learn to solve work problems. What standards exist in a workplace that encourage worker learning? In addition, what are the research-based ethical dilemmas practitioners face and how should those dilemmas be overcome? And finally, what are the research-based values should people in our field demonstrate, and what behaviors do that best across cultures?

What advice do you have to people coming up in the ranks? For practitioners who have been in the field for some time, what is your advice for staying relevant?

Rothwell: For people coming up in the ranks and for practitioners who have been in the field for some time, I have the same advice: Keep learning and never fall prey to the arrogance that leads to the belief that you know enough! There is nothing worse in our field than a “know-it-all” because that sort of person defeats the whole purpose of what we are doing, which is trying to help people remain open to new learning!

To people early in their careers, though, I would tell them to try out many things to find out what they do well and what they like doing. For people who have been in the field for some time, I would say, “Always ask yourself if there are better, more creative ways to do what we have always done.” Always ask, “Why do we do things that way? Aren’t there better ways?”

What is it about your work that's really inspired you over the years?

Rothwell: I have worked in government, in a large multinational corporation, as a college professor, and as a consultant. But I never left the field, whether we call it Training, Human Resource Development, Workplace Learning and Performance, Learning and Performance, Learning and Development, or Talent Development. What has always inspired me over the years is the evidence I see of how those who participated in my programs eventually benefited from them. For example, as a professor, I boast most often about the great successes that my students and former students have had. To dramatize that point—and the large amount of international work I have done—I used to joke (and, yes, with a touch of arrogance and pride), “The sun never sets on the British Empire, and the sun never sets on Rothwell’s students.” So, I would say that the success of my students—whether college students or participants in my training programs—is what has inspired me most. I revel in their success, and I am always willing to help them learn more, even when they have graduated decades ago. And, yes, I have former students, now senior execs, meet me for dinner or by phone for some career coaching.

How has ATD supported your work and career? What value do you think ATD adds to the industry?

Rothwell: ATD, formerly ASTD, has long held the leadership role in the field, regardless of what that field is called. So, I think ATD plays an important role in pointing the way for the direction of this industry. ATD has taken the lead in identifying competencies, establishing certification requirements, offering programs in the United States and around the globe, and providing resources (books, research, and training) to help practitioners do their jobs better and grow.

About the Author

Ryann K. Ellis is an editor for the Association of Talent Development (ATD). She has been covering workplace learning and performance for ATD (formerly the American Society for Training & Development) since 1995. She currently manages ATD's Community of Practice blogs, as well as ATD's government-focused magazine, The Public Manager. Contact her at 

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