Los Angeles, California
Harold D. Stolovitch is an experienced workshop leader and keynote speaker at major conferences and organizations throughout the world. He is co-editor of the first two editions of the Handbook of Human Performance Technology and co-author of the bestselling, award-winning series of books, Telling Ain’t Training, Training Ain’t Performance, Beyond Telling Ain’t Training Fieldbook, and Beyond Training Ain’t Performance Fieldbook, published by ASTD.
As principal of the international consulting firm HSA Learning & Performance Solutions LLC, Stolovitch has worked with major corporations such as Bank of Montreal, General Motors, Hewlett-Packard, Merck, Sun Microsystems, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He is a professor emeritus of workplace learning and performance at the University of Montreal.
Stolovitch has won numerous awards for his contributions to the fields of instructional technology and performance technology, including the 2001 International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) Distinguished Professional Achievement award and ISPI’s highest award, Member for Life. He also received the 2003 President’s Award for Lifetime Achievements from the Canadian Society for Training and Development. And in 2004, Stolovitch and his team won the ASTD Outstanding Research Award for their work on incentives, motivation, and workplace performance.
How did you initially become interested in the workplace learning and performance field?
There are two answers to that. First, I say with both pride and humility that I was born poor. I’m from an immigrant family. We didn’t have much money, and I started working when I was extremely young. By the age of 12, I was working and contributing to the family and helping to raise my two younger siblings. I found school to be a better place than home in terms of physical comfort, interest, and reward. Work and learning were two common themes in my childhood—I liked them, and I liked the natural linkage between them.
Much later I attended Indiana University to earn my master’s and PhD degrees in instructional systems technology. There, I discovered human performance technology. As a student attending an ISPI conference, I became enthralled with it and met leaders and pioneers in the field who were very supportive of my excitement. I think my foundational interest in learning, plus the belief that people are valued for what they do and how well they perform—and value themselves for that as well—all led to my becoming more and more enamored of the field.
What characteristics and skills does today’s learning professional require for success?
Characteristics are almost more essential for success than skills. Today’s learning professionals must care deeply and sincerely about how others learn and perform. They must view themselves as vehicles—means—for helping others to perform well and be successful. If you’re wrapped up in yourself, then I don’t think you’re the right person for this job. So, in that sense, ours is a caring profession.
Another important characteristic is a very strong analytic bent, one that doesn’t accept things superficially or jump on bandwagons, but looks beyond what people say they want to what they truly need. A third is a true desire and dedication to ensure that people achieve the success they value. Also, obviously, if you’re going to be successful in this field, you have to possess a good business sense because we are in the workplace. We’ve got to be able to think like business leaders, and possess excellent organizational and communication capabilities.
Some of these seem to be skills as well, but often they are characteristics that you refine through the skills that you build such as analytic skills, design skills, communication skills, organizational skills, and management skills. And there’s a whole area of skills in persuasion and influence—taking people who are cynical and moving them to be on board with learning in ways that work for them.
If we’re going to be workplace learning and performance professionals, we must give up trying to become masters of technology—we’ll never get it before another technology comes along. So keep abreast of trends, know what’s going on, snoop, but don’t try to become a programmer or a software designer. It’s too hard. Other people do it better than we do—hire them.
What do you predict to be the most important trends emerging in the training and development profession within the next decade?
I am frequently amazed, when going into organizations, at the naiveté around what it takes to get people to perform properly. The old belief, "If they can’t do it, then train them, and if you’ve trained them, train them again," surprisingly still exists. The subject matter expert still is being asked to transmit knowledge rather than being prepared to transform people.
My predictions are more of a wish list. I foresee that what we know about how people acquire information, how they treat information, and what goes on inside of us that interferes with our ability to retain and perform will be influenced more and more by the neurosciences. This will not be a magic bullet, but it will help us to better understand our target—the learner and performer.
Too many of us are still stuck on the stimulus, on the information we believe to be essential and the technologies we employ to transmit, rather than focusing on the receivers of that information and what goes on inside of them.
Another hopeful prediction is that we will improve our ability to influence decision makers with an understanding that training will never be enough; alone, it will rarely allow people to perform well. This is more of a hope than an assurance—that there will be more systemic approaches for helping our charges to perform in ways that they and all other stakeholders value.
With respect to technology, we’ll continue to use it to train and transform. However, now we also are witnessing a wave of concern about being overwhelmed by too much technology presence. Technology amplifies, speeds up, and makes things more immediate. The problem is that it often interferes with our needed time to reflect. So I’m hoping that we will continue to examine human performance more deeply rather than in the many superficial ways we view it now.
Enthusiasm about mobile learning or endless apps ignores what we, as human information processors, can handle. We’re making people crazy with emails, and now we want them to take time while they’re in the midst of problem solving or at the beach to learn how to do something.
I’m being a little facetious, and I’m caricaturing, but the fact is that all of these expectations have to be placed within the human organism’s capacities. We have load limits. And I realize when I present my seminars that people don’t really know how we process and absorb information or about our load limits or short-term working memory limits.
I’m predicting, with hopefulness, that these three areas are future trends: better understanding of how people absorb information and perform, acquiring a more systemic perspective, and gaining an understanding of the limits of technology and how we can use it in a more invisible way. It’s about focusing on the essentials, on what’s fundamental, rather than on the packaging.
What is one change you would like to see in the area of human performance improvement?
I want to see us get away from the media and delivery systems and focus instead on what helps people to perform better. And I’d like to see much more of a focus on analysis before we design, and on understanding human performance before we try to change it.
You are a prolific consultant, trainer, speaker, and author. Which of these roles do you most enjoy, and why?
All of these are manifestations of one central role. Underneath all four of them is my role as educator.
As a consultant, the best role I play is an educational one. That doesn’t mean I don’t turn up my sleeves, work closely with clients, facilitate, do the analysis, help with development, and so on. But at the same time, I’m educating. I keep telling my clients, "What I’m doing is helping you to get rid of me. However, don’t get rid of me too quickly or you might run into trouble. Fade me out as you gain strength."
As a trainer, it’s the same thing. I’m not just training learners to absorb what I’m teaching. Rather, I’m transferring what I’ve acquired over time at a much faster rate than it took me. As a speaker, again, I try to influence and demonstrate other ways of doing things. And the same goes for my role as an author. If you read my articles and books, you’ll see that I’m always teaching.
So my favorite role is that of educator. I teach any way I can.
Are you working on any new books or special projects?
My wife, Erica Keeps, and I are working on a new book right now. It has to do with discriminating between what is science and what is lore in learning and performance. We have accumulated a lot of research for most of the chapters, and at this point are trying to pitch the content at the right level. It will be the final book in our Ain’t series.
What do you like to do for relaxation or fun?
I’m passionate about our field, so anything that’s related to it is kind of fun, sometimes in a painful way—learning is both fun and growth. My relaxation activities outside of the work and research arenas are twofold.
First, I’m a long-distance runner, and I’ve run a number of marathons—my first one at the age of 65. The other—even though I’ve travelled all of my life for my work—is doing more leisure travel and visiting regions for extended periods of time. Erica and I enjoy traveling together, and we’d like to take some of the younger members of our family along when they’re old enough to travel with us.