PATHWAYS — Volume10, Number 3 – August, 1998


Some years ago W. E. Deming said, "The greatest waste in America is the failure to use the abilities of people." Such waste comes easy when organizations do not recognize the importance of:

If you are familiar with Deming's work, you know he gave as much weight to the competence of people as he did to business processes and technology.

In the At Issue section of this issue of Pathways, Dr. Herbert Miller, a FLInet Affiliate, reviews a new book with just such a people focus Revolutionizing Workforce Performance: A Systems Approach to Mastery, by Jack E. Bowsher.

Before his retirement in 1988, Mr. Bowsher was Director of Education for IBM Corporation. In 1989, Mr. Bowsher authored Educating America: Lessons Learned in the Nation's Corporations. (See footnote 1) In that first book, Mr. Bowsher challenged corporate and private educators to begin addressing the needs of the 21st century. He recommended a coordinated effort between the school systems and corporate training environments to begin preparing the nation's workforce for future requirements. Now, in Revolutionizing Workforce Performance, Mr. Bowsher turns his focus to how industry can do a better job of developing the workforce it presently has in place.

John C. Wills

Editor's Note: Although Mr. Bowsher uses both "education" and "training" in his book, for simplicity we have substituted the single term, "training."



A review of Revolutionizing Workforce Performance: A Systems Approach to Mastery, by Jack E. Bowsher(See footnote 2.)


Herbert R. Miller, Ph.D.
FLInet™ Affiliate

A quarter century ago, had we had the opportunity to ask Jack Bowsher what he would be doing when it came time to retire from IBM, I doubt he would have speculated that he’d be working in the area of training.

Jack’s background was in accounting and his career at IBM had largely been in the marketing of information systems through the early 1970s, halcyon days of the mainframe computer. Eventually he received a headquarters assignment in Westchester County, New York and, in early 1974, became involved in managing the first major training development effort for which IBM had gone to an outside vendor. That vendor was employing a "systems approach" to the development of training … an approach that was a long way from "business as usual" in the corporate training arena. This sales training program and others that followed were great successes. Jack perceived a cause-and-effect relationship between the systematic approach to training development and its success in the field. He also saw an absence of such a systematic approach in IBM's training and employee development programs. Over the next several years, he worked to advance the "systems approach" throughout training at IBM.

In Revolutionizing Workforce Performance, Jack directs his attention to corporations and governmental organizations in America. He begins by getting our attention with this quotation. (See footnote 3.)

Despite major investments in technology, downsizing, restructuring, and reengineering to cut costs and improve their competitive advantage, 98 percent of companies [responding to the 1994 Conference Board survey] report a need to gain more productivity and higher performance from their workforce.

With so many companies complaining about problems with their most critical resource their workforce it is obvious that the quest for simple, quick solutions to complex organizational problems is still a critical issue. Yet, as Jack illustrates, workforce problems seldom respond to quick, simple solutions.

Workforces with Some Training

Bowsher characterizes the majority of organizations in America as having workforces with some training. Certainly, one couldn’t be blamed for thinking that some training is better than no training at all. The problem is that the training into which these organizations are pouring a lot of money often produces little in the way of results. According to Jack, training programs in these organizations share a number of characteristics, all of which contribute to creating workforces with some training, yet end up being a poor investment.

A good way to summarize these characteristics is "lack of focus" with a resulting "inability to demonstrate results."

"Our people need some training … get on it." "Count the seats occupied, tally the smile sheets!" "Great, now everyone’s educated … our problems are solved!"

Of course, that’s a simplification … intentionally facetious but closer to the truth than it should be. It’s no secret that organizations pour millions of dollars into training each year with little or no measurable effect. The problem is that management groups in these organizations typically haven’t a clue how much money is being spent. If they did, Jack contends, things would be very different. A workforce with some training is expensive and inefficient, and … perhaps worst of all … almost always puts the organization at a competitive disadvantage.

The Competitive Workforce

Fortunately organizations exist in America that have a different sort of workforce … a competitive workforce …a workforce that plays an important, recognized, and deliberately designed role in the success of their organizations. Jack gives brief snapshots of a range of organizations in this small and regrettably elite group. They represent a variety of industries and organizational endeavors. Many are relatively new, others are well established. Of course, some (such as the airlines) have critical needs for effective training that won’t tolerate sloppiness … and such performance-dictated pressure for excellence makes them a good place to look for "best practices".

Training programs that contribute to creating competitive workforces share a number of characteristics very different to those mentioned earlier.

Unlike training efforts that produce workforces with some training, we see here a clear focus on factors that are important to the organization and its people. Because of the systematic approach typically required to produce competitive workforces, these organizations are also able to measure results … and they achieve a favorable return on their investment of precious organizational resources.

In addition, organizations with competitive workforces do not find it acceptable for their investment in training to produce performance results where the mean and median coincide … an instance of the infamous "bell curve" where 50 percent of the population scores below average and a mere handful demonstrate the level of mastery that makes a workforce competitive. Instead, these organizations take aggressive, deliberate steps in all facets of their training programs to be sure results are skewed to the right … with the bulk of the population demonstrating clear mastery of learning and performance, and with substantially more than half performing "above average".

Developing a Competitive Workforce -- Some First Steps

This brings us to the main part of Revolutionizing Workforce Performance … what to do to become an organization with a competitive workforce. Jack begins by setting forth important first steps. In the following table, his recommended steps are shown on the left, with implications on the right.

  1. Appoint a proven change leader to the position of Chief Training Officer.
This must be a person who can lead, inspire, and challenge a major effort.
  • Develop and implement a management system that integrates the best practices of organization development, training, performance technology, reengineering, and HR programs.
To achieve significant results, there must be a clearly defined management system.
  • Develop a formal working partnership between executive management and a restructured training and performance organization.
Alliances across functions within the organization will be required to assure meaningful results.
  • Enhance or reengineer the basic processes of the organization.
There must be an up-to-date context within which people can optimize their contributions.
  • Identify key jobs within the organization and the performance requirements for each major job category.
There must be a clear definition of the jobs and job requirements that will make a difference.


The following table shows the management system Jack proposes.

table.GIF (13255 bytes)


For additional details on this management system and suggestions for implementing it, the reader is referred to the text of Jack’s book.

In Summary

Without a clear statement of mission and fulfillment of the "first steps" that Jack has defined, a management system such as the one Jack is suggesting for revolutionizing workforce performance will not succeed. On the other hand, with a steady and focused investment of effort and time set in the context of the organization and its unique needs, such a management system can produce significant results.

The difficulty … indeed challenge … in moving forward with Jack’s message rests in the fact that the words "steady," "focused," and "context" imply commitment. Commitment in time. Commitment in resources. Commitment across the breadth and depth of an organization. Unfocused change with process reengineering this week, a TQM program next month, improved automation for building widgets next quarter is not acceptable. All the implications of changes intended to improve organizational performance need to be thoroughly understood … implications for processes, technologies, people, and the ways that they work together.

With a management system for revolutionizing workforce performance woven into the fabric of the organization, the likelihood of training achieving significant results … for the people and their organization … is much greater. Paying lip service to training and its role within the organization has and always will produce workforces with some training. A commitment to doing things right … a commitment that weaves its way throughout the organizational fabric … will produce the competitive workforces that organizations need if they are to be truly competitive in the 21st Century.

1 Bowsher, Jack E. Educating America: Lessons Learned in the Nation's Corporations. New York: John Wiley, 1989.

2 Bowsher, Jack E. Revolutionizing Workforce Performance: A Systems Approach to Mastery. Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer, 1998. ISBN: 0-7879-0798-7

3 Csoka, L. "The Human Performance Gap." The Conference Board, 1994.