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4 Key Roles of Performance Consultants

HPT (human performance technology), HPI (human performance improvement), performance consulting, and performance improvement all refer to an approach or process that has certain common principles. It:


  • focuses on business goals plus performance outcomes or accomplishments
  • is systematic and systemic (it considers more than training, organizational development, or process improvement as a possible solution; instead it looks at the system)
  • identifies performance gaps
  • determines the causes. 

In addition to understanding what performance consulting is (and what it isn’t), it’s important to know the skills and competencies a good performance consultant needs to be successful. Competencies refer to the key abilities required by a profession. Being a successful performance consultant involves some core competencies that go beyond those expected of a successful trainer, OD practitioner, or facilitator. 
It’s difficult to talk about what competencies all performance consultants need because the roles and functions of a performance consultant vary from organization to organization. The four key roles that performance consultants play can be labeled as analyst, intervention (performance improvement) specialist, change manager, and evaluator (Rothwell 1999). 

Performance consultants fill one or more of the four key roles. Some perfor­mance consultants are responsible for all four roles, while others specialize in a combination of the four. The roles carried out by a performance consultant depend upon her organization, how the performance function is structured, and the kind of performance challenges she sees. In any case, each performance consultant role involves different competencies, although there is some overlap among competencies between roles. Thus, the roles a performance consultant is respon­sible for determine what competencies are necessary. Let’s take a closer look.  

Analyst

The first role is that of the analyst. The analyst is a performance detective. This is the role responsible for the initial contact with the client and identifying the performance gap. Thus, the analyst does a lot of investigation and research to determine the problem. However, the analyst is not responsible for designing and delivering the solution. One competency that is important for analysts involves front-end analysis skills. Front-end analysis is the process of identifying the performance gap and comparing actual performance with ideal performance. Another key competency for this role is questioning skills, because this work involves gathering information from performers. 

Analysts also need to be good at synthesis, which is the ability to integrate diverse data into a coherent whole. Analysts usually gather information from a variety of sources, such as interviews, focus groups, surveys, observation, and document review. Once all this information is pooled, a more complete insight into the performance gap can be obtained. Therefore, the ability to take these diverse perspectives and create a clear picture is critical. 

For some organizations, the performance consultant won’t be expected to do anything other than handle the role of analyst. The analyst will be a specialist in some organizations. The value added in this instance comes from the insight provided by the front-end analysis. Then other performers can use the analysis to take action—to design and deliver the appropriate solutions, whether they consist of training or some other activity. There will also be some performance consultants who fill all roles.

Performance Improvement Specialist

The second role of performance consulting is that of what Rothwell (1999) referred to as inter­vention specialist, but is now more aptly called performance improvement specialist. They may design and implement the solution or supervise a contractor or expert who designs and delivers the solution. One other possibility is that they may coordinate a team of people who help create the solution. This may be especially true for distance learning courses that may involve a team of subject matter experts, IT and programming staff, instructional designers, graphic designers, and multimedia staff. In any case, the performance improvement specialist is someone who has partic­ular expertise with the solution and some degree of project management skills. 

The performance improvement specialist needs to be skilled in a number of important competencies, such as being able to interpret the information generated by the analyst to design, or guide the design, of possible solutions. It is important that the performance improvement specialist can interpret information. The performance improvement specialist may also have to coordinate projects with multiple solutions to the same problem. As a result, another key compe­tency for this role is the ability to assess relationships among solutions.

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Change Manager

The third role of the performance consultant is that of change manager (Rothwell 1999). Manag­ing change is a part of any performance improvement project—even very small ones of limited scope and focus. However, this is a more distinct or specialized role for performance consultants on very large and diverse projects. For instance, if the performance gap involved several thousand performers with multiple solutions—training, job aids, changes in appraisal processes, revising organizational policies, and re-engineering feedback processes—then the value of a dedicated change manager becomes much more obvious. 

With any given solution, some elements of the organization almost always create problems. For instance, suppose that you need to address a performance gap caused by work bottlenecks. The work bottlenecks develop because key staff members are called away for meetings, resulting in a work pileup. Your solution is to organize the work in teams so that team members can cover for people who are away. This solution by itself will probably fail without a strong focus on change management. For example, if the organization still has a performance appraisal system that evaluates everyone individually, as opposed to evaluating them as a team, it will work against the team setup by penalizing real team players who sacrifice individual glory for the good of the team. A good change manager would identify other elements of the system that need to be changed so that they support the proposed solution. 

A good change manager also needs to deal with resistance to change. It may be necessary to set up and conduct meetings with employees to provide information and gain feedback about the proposed change. A combination of staff members and customers may choose to fight the change, so the change manager must be ready to deal with this resistance. Development of a communication plan is always an important part of a solution or series of solutions, and a change manager often will coordinate the development and implementation of such a plan. Most changes encounter unexpected obstacles consisting of unanticipated issues, breakdowns in the solution, or unplanned resistance. The change manager will usually play a big role in dealing with these solution potholes.

Given the previous description, you can probably guess at some of the key competencies necessary for effective change managers. They will have a good understanding of group dynamics processes because so much of their time will be spent working with teams responsible for rollout or communication. A change manager must also have good process consultation skills, because she needs to be good at observing both individuals and groups, seeing how they interact, and knowing how their interactions affect others. In addition, change managers need to have good facilitation skills because they may be responsible for planning or facilitating meetings, feedback sessions, and organizational conversations about the solution. Consequently, individuals with strong OD consulting backgrounds can be effective change managers.

Evaluator

The fourth role that performance consultants may play is that of evaluator (Rothwell 1999). The evaluator is responsible for measuring results on a variety of levels. For instance, the evaluator may be asked to assess the degree to which participants have improved their skills, or the eval­uator may need to identify how much impact the solution had on larger business goals, such as increasing sales, improving market share, or enhancing customer responsiveness.

Ideally, the evaluator is involved in the performance consulting process from the very beginning so that the initial client conversations about the objectives of the consulting work, the importance of the performance gap, and the purpose and goals of the performers are all clearly understood. All of these pieces are critical when it comes to determining the evaluation strategy and metrics for measurement. 

Additionally, the evaluator needs to discuss with the client the resources—time and money—required for the solution and its evaluation. However, often an evaluator is brought into a project after a solution has been implemented, when the customer is pressured to show the value of the work. In these cases, in which the evaluator was not on hand for the early conversations to shape expectations and identify appropriate targets, the evaluation process is reactive. The evaluator may also be brought in to help improve particular solutions during the piloting or beta-test stages. 

Evaluators must have several basic competencies. In fact, many of the skills that are import- ant for analysts, such as data gathering and analysis, are also very useful for evaluators. Evaluators need the ability to compare results with organizational goals. Also, evaluators must have standard-setting skills, which are used to measure desired results and to help others establish targets. Effective feedback skills is another basic competency that an evaluator must have, because he will be reporting results back to clients and stakeholders and may often be delivering bad news. 

For more insight into the skills and competencies required for successful performance improvement check out Performance Basics, Second Edition (ATD Press, 2016). This revised book guides you through human performance improvement—or HPI—and delves into major changes in performance analysis. See the Performance DNA process you know from ATD’s Human Performance Improvement program at work and discover why focusing on performance improvement is so important to organizational success.  

About the Author
Joe Willmore is president of the Willmore Consulting Group, a performance consulting firm located near Washington, D.C. He has more than 35 years’ consulting experience with a wide range of clients, including the World Bank, Intelsat, Lockheed Martin, the U.S. Navy, Booz Allen Hamilton, and the Smithsonian Institution. He has served on ATD’s board of directors and held other leadership positions within ATD and other professional societies.
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