We’ve all been there: You pour your heart and soul into a great training program, it’s delivered without a hitch and the participants are genuinely enthusiastic about what they’ve learned. A couple of weeks, then months go by. You hope that the new concepts are making a difference in the performance of the participants, but there doesn’t seem to be much change. If this feels familiar, it’s time to change your mindset and your approach, because hope is not a strategy. Improved performance is the finish line, not increased learning.

All too often, learning and development (L&D) organizations focus almost exclusively on creating great learning content. They measure their performance based on how many people they’ve trained and their responses to program evaluations without knowing if the learning has resulted in any significant performance improvement for the learners or the business. This approach marginalizes the learning function and erodes support for future training investments.

Instead, learning and development organizations should focus on improved performance as their measure of success. Changing the way they operate can help them create the intended impact on the performance of the organization. High-performing training organizations deliver learning experiences that focus on performance improvement, not events that focus on learning. There are several steps every training organization can begin taking right now to change to a performance-driven approach to learning.

The Performance Improvement Mindset

First and foremost, start with changing the mindset of your learning and development organization and your business stakeholders. The sole purpose of the L&D function is to improve the performance of the company through the learning it delivers. All significant learning initiatives should be aligned to a strategic objective(s) of the organization, have executive sponsorship, and monitor and measure clear performance objectives to determine impact. As the person in charge of the learning organization, creating a business-centric approach to learning is your most important responsibility.

In addition to changing to a performance-based mindset, several other key steps can ensure performance-based results:

  • Develop performance objectives.
  • Include deliberate practice as a part of learning.
  • Extend the learning beyond the classroom with performance support.
  • Reinforce new concepts and skills periodically.
  • Measure the impact on key performance metrics.

Start With Performance Objectives

Many training organizations focus entirely on developing well-written learning objectives and never clearly determine the performance objectives for key training initiatives. Learning objectives are necessary, but you should only develop them after determining the performance objectives, and only the instructional design team should use them. As Roy Pollock, Andrew Jefferson and Calhoun Wick write in their book “The Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning,” “Expected outcomes must be designed before the learning objectives; learning objectives only exist to support achievement of business goals.” Communicate the performance objectives to potential participants and their leaders to sell the benefits of participating in the learning experience.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Great performance and learning objectives are not enough if the learning experience follows the typical training event approach. Performance-based learning initiatives recraft the learning experience with a focus on performance from the start, through the learning activity and into the workplace. Think flipped classroom, where less time is spent on lecture and more time is spent on hands-on active learning and exploration. Everyone from baby boomers to millennials learns better by doing.

Build learning activities over an extended period of time. If there is a classroom session, make sure to carve out a significant portion of time for practicing the new skills. Pollock, Jefferson and Wick recommend dedicating two-thirds or more of learning time to practice with feedback. World-class athletes, chess players and musicians spend much more time practicing their craft then they do performing their craft, yet employees are expected to perform new skills at a high level even though they’ve had little time to hone them through practice. Using what Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool refer to as “deliberate practice” in their book “Peak” will drive sustained performance improvement. Deliberate practice includes repetition, immediate feedback, coaching and support.

Practice, coaching and support shouldn’t stop once the learners leave the classroom. Effective performance-based learning is designed to extend learning beyond the classroom and into the work environment. You can support this post-training learning using formal review sessions, email reminders, videos or job aids that reinforce the correct behaviors. Hermann Ebbinghaus’ research in the 1880s clearly demonstrated the positive impact of periodic review and practice to reinforce and maintain new skills.

Establishing this expectation up front with participants and their managers will improve the likelihood of the new skills’ application in real work environments; don’t give participants credit for completing the learning program until they report or demonstrate some specified level of workplace application.

Including managers before the learning initiative is critical for success. Managers who are properly prepared and actively engaged in supporting the new skills’ application are critical for success. If managers are resistant to or even neutral about the new skills, learners will not apply them.

You Get What You Measure

All of this work won’t be of much value if there isn’t a solid process in place to monitor the skills learners are applying in the work environment and the impact that application has on business performance. Collecting level 1 feedback about how the learners enjoyed the experience is still important, but it is not enough. Any learning initiative with executive sponsorship must include a plan to measure the impact on the business. After all, the marketing department isn’t given funding for a new marketing initiative without expectations for reporting periodically on the number of new customers or products sold. The learning organization shouldn’t function any differently.

This task becomes easier when you build in performance objectives at the start of the initiative and make them a continuous focus throughout the entire experience. Over time, this approach will become the norm as you develop systems and tools to measure and report on business impact. It’s the ultimate feedback mechanism for the effectiveness of training, and it gives you the opportunity to reflect on what went well and what needs improvement. Sharing the results with the learners, line leaders and executive sponsor will build support and credibility, increasing their desire to sponsor more initiatives in the future.

The Journey Is Worth It

Shifting from a learning event approach to a strategically aligned, business performance approach will be a tough journey, but it is a necessary journey for the learning organization to fulfill its obligation to the broader organization. This approach will deliver results that have a positive impact on the business and build credibility for the training organization. Remember, the finish line is performance, not learning!

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