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What is Performance Consulting?

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Performance consulting (which is sometimes called Human Performance Improvement or Human Performance Technology) means a systematic process to analyzing human performance problems or finding opportunities where human performance can be improved.  It uncovers gaps between:

  • What is happening? (the current or actual situation); and
  • What should be happening? (the desired or ideal situation)

The difference between the two is a performance gap, a difference between what is and what should be.  That gap can exist at present, or it may be expected to exist at some point in the future.

How Does Performance Consulting Differ From, and Relate to, Education and Training?

            The world is filled with problems and opportunities for improvement. Some problems are caused by issues associated with people.  Other problems (as in the case of machines or stocks and bonds) have nothing to do with people.  Performance consulting focuses on the problems or opportunities for productivity improvement having to do with people.

Key Assumptions

Performance consulting makes several key assumptions:

  • Human performance is complex. (If you think computers are complicated, try dealing with human beings!)
  • Human performance means results or outcomes and the observable behaviors associated with achieving those results.
  • Organizations are more responsible for achieving results than individuals are. Since organizations are controlled and guided by management, management bears the chief responsibility for creating a work environment where people want to perform, are capable of performing, are rewarded for performing, and are adequately equipped with the tools and other resources they need to perform.

Performance Consulting and Its Relationships to Training and Education

            Training is perhaps best understood as a short-term, individually-focused change effort that is intended to narrow the performance gap between what an individual knows and what he or she must know to perform.  Education is a long-term, individually-focused change effort that is intended to provide people with the foundational knowledge, skills and attitudes that they need to be successful in life.  Both training and education are solutions.  They narrow or close a gap caused by lack of knowledge, skill or appropriate attitude.

            However, not all gaps between what is and what should be are caused by a lack of knowledge, skill or appropriate attitude.  Indeed, less than 10% of all problems is traceable to an individual's lack of knowledge, skill or attitude to perform.  The remaining 90% of all problems is traceable to such other causes of performance problems as the lack of:

  • Resources (time, money or people)
  • Clear goals (do we know what results are to be achieved?)
  • Feedback (how often and how clearly are people told how well they are performing?)
  • Tools or equipment
  • Clearly-assigned responsibility (who is supposed to do what?)
  • Incentives or rewards (what's in it for me?)
  • Practice
  • Motivation (do performers want to perform?)
  • Ability (does the performer have the necessary aptitude to learn to perform?)
  • The right people in the right places (is the organization choosing the right people for the right work?)

According to one study, there are at least 350 factorial root causes of human performance problems in organizational settings. Human performance can go wrong in just about as many ways as the human body can go wrong, an issue that provides medical doctors with ample cause for concern when diagnosing illnesses.

            Training will only solve problems caused by lack of knowledge, skill or attitude, and it will not solve problems stemming from other causes.

            In summary, then, the key difference between performance consulting and training or education is that:

  • Performance consulting focuses on analyzing the causes of problems and selecting the "best" solution(s) to address the cause and thereby solve the problem.
  • Training is a specific solution to a problem caused by an individual's lack of knowledge, skill or attitude.
  • Education is a nonspecific solution to life problems. It prepares people for the future, though it may not be tailored to equip them with specific knowledge, skills and attitudes to perform in any one corporate culture.

            In work settings, managers face "problems."  They may--or may not--have need of such specific solutions such as training to solve those problems.   

Written by: William J. Rothwell, Ph.D.

VILT - Competencies and Performance Consulting 6-9 Dec 2021