There’s a gap between workplace learning and performance, which impacts organizational competitiveness and growth. Let’s explore why that gap matters and showcase strategies to bridge these gaps to drive better performance.

Why Is There a Need to Establish a Link Between Training, Learning and Performance Gain?

As employees strive to learn new skills and concepts, there can be a visible disconnect — an inverse relationship between learning and performance. Yet, it is this gap between what learners should know and what the business needs that holds the key to performance enhancement.

When a learner is exposed to a new skill, they initially perform poorly at it. The act (or process) of learning, practicing and remembering can be difficult, often leading to performance gaps in the workplace. However, deliberate practice and application-based learning is what ultimately leads to improved performance back on the job.

When designing training that translates to improved performance, therefore, psychologists and educators are unanimous on one aspect — there is an link between learning and remembering, and those links can be exploited (or leveraged) in the context of workplace metacognition.

What Is the Difference Between Learning and Performance?

Often, low performance is caused by underlying skills or knowledge gaps. By delivering training that learners can immediately apply on the job, L&D teams can help bridge those learning and performance gaps.

To bridge the gap between learning and performance, we need to appreciate their differences:

  • Learning: It is the target of learning interventions, and it is what causes a change in knowledge or understanding of the targeted skills in the employee.
  • Performance: This is a measure of how employees fulfill their tasks and responsibilities, in line with accepted or desired behavior changes in the workplace.

Improved workplace performance is the target of most employee learning interventions. At a very high level, learning is what (supposedly) drives performance. However, many such interventions fail to achieve their targeted goals. That’s because, despite attending specific learning programs, learning transfer does not occur — there’s still a learning and performance gap!

How to Ensure that Your Learning Programs Lead to Desired Workplace Performance?

Learning programs are typically just one (often a small) segment of an enterprise’s operations. Unfortunately, while other aspects of the business, such as manufacturing and sales, are directly measured against organization-wide performance targets, learning outcomes often aren’t held to the same standard.

To measure how learning contributes to performance, it’s important to tie learning objectives to learning outcomes and performance. Here’s how:

  • Broaden the focus of your training needs analysis to enmesh learner asks and expectations: Focusing only on learning objectives is not adequate. It is critical to augment the traditional training needs analysis with a detailed learning needs analysis (LNA) to align what the employee expectations are. Learning program objectives must be realigned to transform business practices and drive individual (employee) and collective (org-wide) performance. However, without first aligning the training to learner asks/expectations — with the aid of an LNA — success will be elusive.
  • Tie learning objectives to learning outcomes (what the learner will be able to do upon completing the learning program): Thus far, learning programs were focused on “training” employees on a set of skills/knowledge points in a formal learning environment. If learning leaders wish to drive organizational performance, it’s important that they focus not just on what the employee will learn but also on what they’re expected to do with that learning.
  • Ensure learning objectives and outcomes lead to performance: One of the biggest challenges of ensuring learning programs deliver measurable performance improvements is the disconnect between learning and performance goals and objectives. In an environment without alignment between training and business goals, L&D teams train to one set of metrics, while business leaders watch for a different set of key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure performance. Harmonizing these two barometers will more effectively establish a link between learning objectives and outcomes, resulting in better performance improvement.

Employee performance, enhanced through learning, must directly align with corporate strategies, goals and performance targets. To make that happen, learning applications must be measured against actual workplace performance enhancements.

What Are the Different Aspects You Should Consider to Drive Performance with Learning?

Performance improvement is a cycle of knowledge acquisition, retaining and practicing newly learned skills and knowledge and applying those skills to the workplace. That’s the learning and performance lifecycle: Employees must acquire new knowledge, they must practice what they’ve learned, and they must apply it to work-related situations.

  • There is an link between learning and remembering: Regardless of how well thought out a learning strategy is, if it doesn’t include aspects of learner needs and expectations, performance enhancements are unlikely to occur.
  • Knowledge acquisition: Breaking content into bite-sized chunks; leveraging in-the-flow and on-the-job performance support tools; and providing post-learning support through knowledge bases, job aids and on-demand learning help learning and performance goals.
  • Information retention: Information retention strategies include in-course quizzes, assignments, post-training reinforcement materials and in-field performance support aids. They all help with learners’ ability to retain information and use it effectively in workplace situations.
  • Learning transfer: This needs to align the extended definition of learning and must include:
    • Practice: Practice can be made fun (and more engaging) through innovative learning strategies, such as gamification, providing practice environments that closely mimic the workplace and offering safe environments for learners to practice, fail and re-apply their learning repeatedly.
    • on-demand learning: A system of frequent reminders and nudges about practicing, reviewing and applying newly learned skills can greatly help enhance performance. Establishing full-circle feedback loops — up, down and sideways — also helps coaches, mentors and trainers quickly correct flawed performance behavior. Embracing agile learning projects can expedite the do-learn-perform-fail-redo loop by making learning and performance improvement adjustments earlier.

What Strategies Should You Adopt to Drive Performance Through Your Learning Programs?

  • Informal learning: Most formal training is linear and produces limited performance improvements. To bridge the gap, support your learners through informal learning strategies, such as mentoring, coaching and social learning.
  • Nudge your learners, reinforce learning and leverage spaced repetition to ensure learning retention: Performance enhancements occur when learners continually practice what they’ve learned, retain that knowledge and then apply it constructively to real situations. “Nudging” learners to review and revise prior learning and encouraging them into repeated practice can help modify deficient behavior, which leads to better performance.
  • Invest in immersive and experiential learning programs to drive deliberate practice: Unlike static slides, audio instructions or text-based page-turners, learning based on simulations, virtual reality (VR), 3D content and augmented reality (AR) provides highly immersive learning experiences. Learning based on concepts like “learn by doing,” “learn and fail safely,” and practice in immersive environments can help bridge the learning and performance deficit.
  • Leverage performance support tools/job aids to drive the application of learning on the job: Once on the job, it’s important to support learners with on-the-job performance enhancing tools, including templates, microlearning content, checklists, interactive PDF content and other job aids, which help improve their performance through better application of learning in the workplace.

Parting Thoughts

Gaps between learning and performance result in non-transference of learned skills and knowledge to the workplace. The best way to ensure learning results in better performance outcomes is to not just design learning programs that bridge skills deficits, but ones that also align with broader organizational performance metrics. When you ensure learning transfer occurs, and that transference translates into better workplace performance — that’s when learning outcomes will support organizational KPIs.

Learn how to design L&D programs that drive business performance: Download this research brief developed by Brandon Hall Group in partnership with EI Design. The strategies and approaches shared in this research will help you create a stronger link between training investments and performance.