When Shakespeare’s Hamlet said, “To be or not to be, that is the question,” I’m sure Ophelia had not asked him to build her a two-hour e-learning training course to remedy Claudius’ and Polonias’ lack of interpersonal skills. However, Hamlet’s famous question has begun to strategically meld its way into consultative discussions between training organizations and their internal customers. To be training, or not to be training? That is certainly the right question.

Here’s an example: Matt is an expert in product training at his company. He started as a support technician, his career quickly catapulted into the product development team and he eventually landed a senior training position. With Matt’s vast subject matter expertise, the director of national sales asks him to build an online training course on the features of the company’s latest notebook computer line to address the recent drag in sales. Excited about making an impact to the business, and potentially to the company’s sales results, Matt begins the training needs assessment, following the path he learned in his recent instructional design training.

What’s wrong with Matt’s approach? Does he know that the recent slump in sales is a training issue? Is it a people performance issue? If so, what are the behavioral or knowledge gaps in performance contributing to the sales slump? What is the ultimate business issue? Is it only the slump in sales?

If you’ve been in the learning industry long enough, you have probably experienced this situation firsthand or felt the impact downstream in the process. What’s missing in this scenario is a skill called performance consulting:- the basic principles of clarifying a business issue and determining its root cause(s) before attributing it to a need for training.

Why is performance consulting important? Without clarifying the true business issue, exploring potential reasons for the issue (other than training) or determining the root cause of the business issue, you could be heading down a dangerous and costly path. Making an assumption that training will remedy your business pains could result in the inability to measure training effectiveness, feedback that “the training didn’t work” (therefore damaging a business relationship), and ultimately having the same discussion with your customer a year later with no impact on or change to the business.

In addition to basic training knowledge, a performance consultant possesses some specific skills and capabilities. Similar to a sales account representative, a performance consultant should think strategically, not overpromise, listen, follow up and ask good questions. “Asking good questions” is a key skill due to the potential impact the answers can have on both the customer’s business and the training organization.

A proven three-step problem-solving approach using the “five whys” technique includes a set of three key questions:

  1. What is the business issue?
  2. What are potential reasons for the business issue?
  3. Why? (asked, on average, five times to determine the root cause of the issue)

Here’s how the approach works.

Define the Business Issue

In many cases, the customer comes to training with comments like, “Our salespeople can’t close a deal!” or, “Our inside sales representatives need training, because they aren’t upselling the new product.” A skilled performance consultant asks good questions to help the customer first clearly define the ultimate business issue. In Matt’s case, his customer’s business issue is that sales were down. But is training the only potential reason?

Explore Potential Reasons

Matt says that training might be a fix, but he asks his sales director for a meeting to discuss the issue. The sales director agrees and includes the manager of product development and two sales managers. (It’s always good to have the right people in the room.)

Matt opens the meeting by asking, “Other than training, what would other potential reasons be for the drop in sales?” His probing helps to open the director’s mind and leverage the knowledge of his own business to uncover other potential reasons than training.

The sales director responds, “Perhaps it’s the competition? We should look closer at industry reports.”

Matt asks, “OK, what else?”

The product development manager adds, “Another reason could be the higher price of our new product.”

Determine Root Cause: Ask the Five Whys

Matt now has three potential reasons for his customer’s drop in sales: lack of training, the competition’s product and the new pricing model. Matt can now investigate further to determine root cause of each.

Based on the information Matt has heard so far, he takes on training reason first and begins the questioning using the five whys technique:

Why do you think your salespeople need this e-learning course?” Matt asks.

“Our reports show a high number of sales calls, but the prospective clients just aren’t returning the agreement,” says the sales director.

Why aren’t the prospective clients returning the agreement?”

“Our sales reps have complained about the processing time of the automated agreements,” says one of the sales managers.

Why is there an issue with the processing time of the automated agreements?”

“We’ve had a number of prospective clients tell us the agreements were inadvertently moved to their junk email folders. When they failed to receive the agreement, the sale delayed or failed to close.”

In this scenario, with only three “why” questions, Matt’s performance consulting skills result in two potential successes. First, he may have shown that what seemed to be a training need is actually a process or technology issue. Second, he may have helped his internal sales organization uncover an unknown reason for their recent drop in sales, potentially making a huge impact on the success of the business.

Not every performance consulting session will be this orchestrated or even completed in one session. In many cases, additional information or research may be required to determine the root cause(s). The job of the performance consultant is to guide the customer to find the root causes of the clearly defined business issue.

In a recent Corporate University Xchange survey representing 150 companies, respondents reported that performance consulting in training organizations reduces training costs due to the elimination of training for training’s sake, increases communication with customer groups, increases alignment between learning and the business’ strategy, and increases leadership support for the learning organization. With these results, even Shakespeare would agree, “To be training, or not to be training” is the right question.