The Business Performance Dilemma

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human performanceStudies may empirically show that human capital yields higher rates of return than physical capital in corporate settings (Lickert and Pyle 1971, Stewart 1994, and Bradley 1996), but my corporate life has empirically shown that a focus on performance never appears with a value of accomplishment, performance support will always lack its database, knowledge management is in no way organized, and informal learning fails to provide means to an end.

And I’m an optimist.

Human Performance Improvement (HPI), Performance Support, Knowledge Management, and Informal Learning may be the hottest buzzwords in the corporate training industry, but my level of mistrust for these trends is based on years of disappointment as a learner within the system.  Companies always have the best of intentions when they introduce once of these seductive new theories into their infrastructure, but when the idea disseminates down to the employee level, the balance of the system has been so upset by penny-pinching, laziness, and narcissism that what remains is not even the same species as the theory that was proven effective.

The key principles in HPI, for example, nearly all include values and rewards, yet in real-world applications where managers are never taught to effectively manage, these items are ignored as inconsequential to performance, leaving all hard work to be unworthy and management (who’ve been conditioned without accounting for their own accomplishments) to remain incompetent (Gilbert 2007).  Likewise, Informal Learning suffers from the same pitfalls as HPI where management oversight proves fatal.  A learner left to learn only what they will willingly immerse themselves in will not work – they’ll play.  Work always has a clear objective, which is what decidedly separates work from play.  Even someone in a creative role has the objective of creation, be it a toy or a web design.  And here, again, a corporation might hear about the value of Informal Learning and think that short bouts of self-paced, self-guided study might benefit their team, but at some point the instructor in their role as expert, mentor, or coach, will be pulled aside and the learner left to their own devices, leaving them paid to play.

Gloria Gery (1991) had the right idea to provide Performance Support to employees when and where they need it at a moment’s notice.  Pre-performance instruction in a corporate setting is often ignored due to arrogance as many employees may think they already have the knowledge to do their job, or due to the perception of being “too busy” which is typically only poor time management rather than too much on one’s plate.  Manuals, handbooks, job aids, and other knowledge management systems all require constant maintenance, however, and I am yet to find a company (at any size) willing to maintain such supportive tools.  Each time a change is made to a product, policy, or procedure, an update is needed to the database, performance support broker, work interface and the delivery integration, yet in real-world applications all updates are seen as the lowest of low priorities and they never happen, resulting in employees being misguided by their own support system.  Performance Support has the ability to be the most valuable of all corporate performance enhancement designs, but they weight of the design prevents it from being of service to today’s employees.

Like Performance Support, Knowledge Management is also too heavy to be a viable solution to enhance productivity and performance in the real-world.  I’ve worked with and for numerous applications that involve Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Sales, Training, Web-Based Professional Services, and so on.  In each application, the same obstacle appeared: laziness.  Knowledge Management applications all require knowledge entry in order for there to be knowledge sharing.  A call center that manages sales might have the most powerful CRM on the market, but if employee A doesn’t input their data from a phone call, employee B will never know about the conversation that took place.  Many CRM and ERP applications offer integration for automation of the data collection, but the integration is never with the “right” applications that the company uses and employees are expected to enter some, if not all, of the data manually.  But when performance is measured by calls taken, not notes written, employee A will pick up the next call without ever finishing the data entry required for a viable knowledge management system, leaving employee B to look like they don’t adequately “know” the customer the next time they call in – just like one of Gilbert’s principles in Human Performance Improvement: A system that rewards people for their behavior without account for accomplishment encourages incompetence (Gilbert 2007).

Human Performance Improvement (HPI), Performance Support, Knowledge Management, and Informal Learning all look good on paper, and in a controlled study might play out to a happy ending, but when these theories are taken from the hands of instructional designers and performance specialists, they become too bastardized to be effective, efficient, or easier alternatives to traditional instruction.


Bradley, K. (1996). Intellectual capital and the new wealth of nations.  Lecture delivered to the Royal Society of Arts, London.
Lickert, R., & Pyle, W. C. (1971). Human resource accounting: A human organizational measurement approach.  Financial Analysis Journal, 101-102, 75-84.
Stewart, T. A. (1994). Your company’s most valuable capital: Intellectual capital.  Fortune (March 10), 68-74.
Gilbert, T. F. (2007). Human competence: Engineering worthy performance (Tribute ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer.
Gery, G. (1991). Electronic performance support systems. Tolland, MA: Gery Associates.
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