ATD Blog

Where Are the Performance Consultants?

Monday, November 20, 2017

In 1996, Dana and Jim Robinson published the first edition of Performance Consulting, which was subtitled Moving Beyond Training. For the last couple of years, as I've partnered with Dana Robinson to build performance consulting capability for our clients, we've used the third edition of that same book as the basis for our day-to-day work.

So, when I use the term, “performance consultant,” I mean to indicate a person within an organization who performs a defined role. Based on our definition of performance consulting, this is someone responsible for partnering with leaders in the organization to achieve business results by optimizing the performance of people and the system in which they work. But it is infrequent that I encounter people, other than self-titled independent consultants, that actually bear the title of “performance consultant.”

Apparently, this isn't just my lone perception. In fact, a 2015 study by Saul Carliner and other experts found the same phenomenon. The authors noted that even though the role of performance consultant is well defined in the literature, there is very little empirical evidence that the role of performance consultant exists in the workforce.

This research explored three questions:

  1. What competencies are sought in a performance consultant?
  2. What is an appropriate job title for the position?
  3. How do these competencies align with competency models published by professional associations?

To answer these questions, the authors worked with a Canadian professional organization to recruit and select job descriptions from large Canadian businesses. Very few job descriptions specifically referred to performance consulting. Consequently, the researchers expanded their sample to include related jobs with descriptions that indicated at least some focus on driving business results through optimized performance.
Analyzing the job descriptions for this sample, the researchers determined that the appropriate job title for those focused on performance consulting is “learning consultant.” This is certainly a title our clients with a learning and development focus often use. Meanwhile, our HR clients often use the title “strategic business partner.” Both of these are fine and useful titles, but don't align fully with the definition of performance consulting I shared earlier.


The problem with these titles is that the term “learning consultant” implies a focus on a single solution (a means we use), rather than a focus on improving performance (an end we want to achieve). And “strategic business partner” is so general that it loses the relationship between business results and the performance of people.

According to the research, actual competencies sought out by employers tended to be training focused and tactical—even when the title or job description referred to performance.  The study suggested that this limits the value of the role as compared to the more strategically aligned position envisioned in the literature.

In reflecting on this research, I decided to conduct some very informal research of my own to see if I could easily locate organizations using the title performance consultant. I conducted a "strict" LinkedIn jobs search for the title of “performance consultant,” limited to companies in the United States. (If you'd like to replicate this search, "strict" simply means I put the search term in quotes, otherwise results will include either the word performance or the work consultant individually.)  Here is what I found:

  • Ninety-nine (99) results were returned with the phrase "performance consultant" appearing either in the job title or description.
  • Only 33 of the titles returned included the phrase “performance consultant,” and only 10 titles were listed as simply "performance consultant."
  • Of those 33, most included some prepended word to better specify the job, such as sales performance consultant. None of these were related to my definition of performance consultant, but the search returned other titles that were, including strategic training consultant, learning and performance consultant, and organizational performance specialist.

So, I decided to search for a couple of additional, more specific phrases. “Human performance consultant” returned only one result; however, "human performance technology" is often used in the literature as a general term for the field. "Performance improvement consultant" returned 11 results. To see if the title of consultant was limiting my results, I then tried "human performance technology." This search returned 39 results, but in reading through the results, there were far more references to training, instruction, and development than performance. Similarly, "human performance improvement" returned 43 results.
For me, my quick searches aligned with the study by Carliner et al. It seems there are many professionals who are doing the work of performance consulting, but relatively few of them call themselves “performance consultants.” What’s more, it seems as though not enough employers know how to recruit, develop, and value people who do this sort of work.  

Bottom line: if I observe you working hard to partner with leaders to achieve business results by optimizing the performance of people and the system in which they work, I'm going to tell people that you're a great performance consultant—no matter what your title is.

Are you a performance consultant? Do you work in a department or function dedicated to performance improvement?  And what is your job title?  I'd love to hear about your experience and continue this conversation.


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. 

Sign In to Post a Comment
We want to rename my position and function from Learning and Development to something that reflects the broader range of consulting work I do. What would you suggest? Performance Management is already taken and not quite right.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
My title is "Lead Training and Talent Development Specialist" and I get the greatest joy from seeing others succeed, promote or become more valuable to the company. I've been with the same company for 20 years. Whether in my title or job description, or not - I find it crucial to be a change advocate for helping re-shape culture in regards to how we approach talent management, performance and competencies. Consulting on this topic or partnering is what I spend much of my time doing!
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
My title is "Learning Partner & Consultant" and I do exactly what you describe above.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.