Learnings Not The Answer

What to Do When Learning Is Not the Answer

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Instructional designers are skilled at analysis. Often during analysis, however, designers determine that improving skills or knowledge—or even successfully changing behavior—cannot produce the change in performance needed. Let me share a project where this happened to me. 

I was working on a team tasked with creating an e-learning course for customer service reps (CSR) staffing a new call center. The call center had been in service for a few months, but the average call times were still higher than the established target. The vice president in charge thought that if CSRs were more skilled at managing calls, they could shorten call times. 

We began our analysis by observing a few of the best, most experienced CSRs. But, as we documented the process we planned to include in the e-learning course, we noticed that the call management software the CSRs used to look up customer account information and track calls seemed to suffer delays when call volume was high. Experienced CSRs even learned "stall" tactics to keep customers engaged on the phone while they waited for screens to load. Surprisingly, just the cumulative time the CSR spent waiting for screens to load exceeded the target average call time. 

So, we could build the best, most engaging learning solution, verify that learning took place and that behaviors changed, and average calls times would still never reach the target. This was a difficult message to deliver to our client in the middle of a large design effort.  

In this case, my team and, by extension, our client could have benefited from a performance consulting approach. Performance consulting is a strategic process that produces business results by maximizing the performance of people and organizations. 

In a performance consulting approach, our starting point would change. Instead of starting our work designing a solution, we would partner with our client to first identify the root causes of the gap between average call times and the target. 


Causes here is plural because even though we uncovered a definite software challenge in our analysis, it would be a mistake to assume that was the only important factor. Gaps in business metrics most often have multiple causes. These causes may be: 

  • internal to the individual, such as a lack of knowledge 
  • internal to the organization, such as underperforming software 
  • external to the organization, such as changing regulations that affect call volume. 

Only once causes are identified can we influence our client to select appropriate solutions aligned with the business metric. In fact, in our story, in addition to the underperforming software, there were some specific skill deficits for certain CSRs, and there were a few complex processes that required a job aid. 

When learning alone is not sufficient, a performance consulting approach is needed to align business and performance needs, identify root causes, and select an appropriate set of solutions. 

Want to learn more? Join me an Atlanta at ATD 2017 International Conference & Exposition for the session: What to Do When Learning Is Not the Answer.

About the Author
Chris Adams is a performance consultant and instructional designer with more than 20 years of experience helping clients engage people, apply processes, and implement technology to improve human and organizational performance. He is currently a senior consultant for Handshaw Inc. in Charlotte, North Carolina. Chris was co-inventor of Handshaw’s award-winning software, Lumenix, one of the first content-managed platforms for e-learning. He has been a featured speaker for a number of ISPI and ATD chapters, and has presented at regional and international conferences such as Training Solutions, The Performance Improvement Conference, and the Coast Guard Human Performance Technology Conference. Chris holds degrees in mass communication and instructional systems technology and is currently a doctoral student in the instructional design and technology program at Old Dominion University. 
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