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What’s the Future of Performance Improvement?

I would humbly like to ask you a question: What kind of future do you think the field of performance improvement has, if any? I ask this question as both a certified practitioner who has worked in this field for over a decade and a recent doctoral graduate. Not long ago, I attended a conference where the buzz around the water cooler was a little alarming. I have summarized some of the questions and discussions that arose. Please consider these as thought questions and exercises. If you have a strong opinion or response to any of these, I’d love to hear it! The more candid discussions we can have around these topics, and the future of our field in general, the better off we will all be.

Who benefits from conferences?

This question was the elephant in the room, and discussion occurred with both attendees and those who chose not to attend. The most common concerns that arose asked if there was room for midlevel professionals at conferences and whether conferences furthered the field? Conferences today seem the same as conferences from 10 years ago—the same seasoned professionals present their life’s work and experiences to crowds of emerging professionals, a handful of midlevel professionals present new research or methods in poorly attended sessions, and a smattering of emerging professionals and students get their feet wet by presenting for the first time. For emerging professionals and students, conferences can be a great way to further their learning and connect with mentors and future colleagues. But if most of the content being presented is recycled fundamental theories and principles, how does this advance the field? And where do midlevel professionals fit into the equation?

If it’s not broke, do we need to fix it?

An argument was made that humans fundamentally learn the same way that they have throughout history. While certainly there is a vast field that works on incorporating technology into learning, are these new ways of learning, or just a technological overlay on much older learning methods? And if we believe humans fundamentally do learn the same way, why do practitioners try to market and promote new ways of learning? Who are these new methods really helping?

If we know it’s broke, why aren’t we fixing it?

If we objectively look at our field, we have to admit that there are things that need fixing. One area that clearly emerges is the need for research. The same calls for research from over a decade ago are still unanswered today. Is it because the research is perceived as more difficult due to the convergence of many fields that make up performance improvement? Is it because research is not as lucrative as other pursuits? We know there is an issue, but little is being done to address it. Another area that emerges is the lack of a clear definition of performance improvement. Outside of our field, how do we explain ourselves? What exactly is a performance specialist, performance consultant, performance practitioner, or a performance technologist? Why do we still have an identity crisis after all this time?

Are models dead?

There has been a call by some professionals to move away from models toward a more principle-based approach. Some of the reasoning behind this suggestion is that many models are not research- or evidenced-based but instead a way for practitioners to try to create a name for themselves or sell books. If this reasoning is sound, how can one ensure that the same issue won’t arise with principle-based approaches? Today, anyone can write a book or white paper and publish it quite easily. So how can someone, especially an emerging professional or a non-professional, tell the difference between models and principle-based approaches that have a solid foundation, instead of those that are merely opinion? What assurances and safeguards are we—as stewards of our profession—putting in place to ensure that “junk science” isn’t promoted?

Will technology put us out of a job or create new jobs?

With the rise of on-demand learning, artificial intelligence, and other new technologies, some professionals are worried that their jobs will become obsolete. Will learning and performance improvement professional jobs go away, or will they simply shift to another space? For example, instead of creating a curriculum, would they be creating learning elements that could be utilized and automatically morphed into a unique learner-specific curriculum based on the interests and responses of the learner? What will the jobs of the future look like? Will new skill sets need to be learned to compete?

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Why is training still the number one go to solution even if research tells us otherwise?

Training is still the number one go-to solution for learning and performance solutions. However, there is research that shows other solutions, such as performance support or incentives may be just as effective as training, if not more. So why do we fall back on training? Is it lack of educating our clients on other solutions? Is training easier for companies to understand, digest, and sell to their stakeholders? Is it lack of experience in implementing other solutions? Is there more pushback from employees when other solutions are implemented? What is the allure of training that holds the profession captive?

What drives the divide between research and practice?

For years, there has been a divide between research and practice. Many people have tried to work together to bridge the gap, yet it still persists. How do we promote our profession to others when we can’t agree internally on fundamentals? To practitioners, it may feel that researchers are holding back and aren’t willing to push the envelope. But to researchers, it may feel like practitioners are acting irresponsibly. Is there a happy medium where a professional can walk and get the best of both worlds? Is there a way to finally work together so the synergy from the combined efforts can create something brighter and better than we have now?

Is it better to be evidence-based or research-based?

Evidence versus research is similar to the argument above. Is one better than the other? Is there room for both? What is the real difference between the two? If professionals don’t know the difference, how will clients know the difference? Does it matter to the client? Should it?

As indicated earlier, all of these are serious questions and concerns that were voiced during a recent professional conference. These issues were not resolved and are still being debated and discussed among our community of professionals.

Make your voice heard!

If you’d like to join the conversation about any of these topics, contact me or leave your thoughts in the Comment section, below. Would you like to write an article or be interviewed? I’d love to hear what you have to say.
© 2017 ATD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.

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About the Author
Patti Radakovich, CPLP is the owner of SHARK Consulting Group, a performance consultancy in Michigan. She has been in the performance improvement and training and development fields for more than a decade. She is also an author and international speaker.
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