PATHWAYS — Volume 10, Number 4, November, 1998

Focus: Trends — A Pooling of Perceptions

Earlier this year FLI convened a group of FLInetä Affiliates to share their perceptions of the major trends in corporate staff performance development. Before the session, participants were asked to think about the changes they have seen in the fields of human resources development and applications of performance technology and prepare to describe the trends they had noted.

During the session, we gathered ideas and comments from over two dozen of these "performance technology providers" representing graphic design, instructional design, web-based training, print and on-line documentation, instructional testing and evaluation, project management, and organizational development. Collectively, the group possessed well over 250 years of performance technology development experience. I want to thank them for participating and for allowing us to share their perceptions with you.

In the At Issue section Van O. Wright, FLI's Manager of Product Quality Control, pulls together and summarizes many of the key trends noted by the group.

John C. Wills



Trends in Performance Technology

FLI recently gathered the views of a number of our FLInetä Affiliates regarding trends they have noted in performance technology. Several "megatrends" became apparent during the session:

This issue of Pathways examines some of the spin-offs resulting from these megatrends taken as a whole, and discusses some of their implications.

Organizational Change

It is commonplace, today, for organizations to modify or totally transform their business model every few years. "Right-sizing" and business process re-engineering (or alignment) seem to be constants of today's business management methodology. These practices have had both planned and unanticipated consequences.

Business process re-engineering's inevitable downsizing has led to a reduced pool of middle managers and subject matter experts (SMEs). Managers have become responsible for more projects. SMEs, in turn, have been burdened with assignments to more projects than in the past, and with shorter delivery cycles.

Some early failures in business process re-engineering led to a better recognition of the human factor in organizational change. Belatedly, many organizations came to realize that such organizational change can't succeed without extensive staff retraining and cross-training. Business process re-engineering remains dependent upon competent people.

Increased organizational change has also led to the decentralization of control. With increased empowerment within fewer management levels, each sphere of influence tends to be accountable for its own niche and, therefore, has it's own budget. Responsibility for staff performance development in many organizations has also become decentralized. In situations where this trend has been carried to the extreme, the result has sometimes been fractured human resources development efforts due to a lack of the critical mass required to respond to organizational change.

A key principle of re-engineering is to outsource non-core processes. Many organizations have included staff education and training, and product/service documentation among the functions considered non-core processes. They have turned to outside service providers, but always with the expectation that the outside suppliers would perform at least as fast and proficiently as was expected of similar in-house services. Because in-house SMEs are in short supply and overworked, outside service providers are being called upon more and more for subject matter expertise and research skills, not just for training/documentation design and development.

Another impact of organizational change is the increased use of telecommuting as a reality of business life. This, combined with the globalization of many organizations large and small, has put increased strains on the ability of organizations to maintain a workforce that is competent both with job tasks and with related support technologies.

Training and Documentation Development and Delivery

There also has been a noticeable impact on those responsible for developing and delivering training and documentation. Driving factors include:

Let's look briefly at each.

Shorter Product/Service Life Cycle

Competitive forces have led to narrower windows of opportunity for the introduction of new products and services. Late delivery is risky; catching up with a market leader is costly or impossible. To compound the problem, organizations often face the need to deliver products and services not only domestically, but with a concurrent world-wide launch.

Shorter Performance System Development Time

For all the reasons just mentioned, organizations are seeking performance technology suppliers who can suggest, develop, and deliver education, training, and documentation in faster, more innovative ways. They often view traditional design models as too time-consuming. Instead, they are seeking suppliers who can:

One of the most common approaches to addressing the time crunch is the growing practice of developing training and documentation concurrently with new product/service development. The major inhibitor to this solution is the failure to plan for and schedule training/documentation development within the critical path of new product/service development.

A Search for Alternatives to Classroom Instruction

Several forces are at work to discourage the use of classroom instruction as the only (or preferred) method of instructional delivery. Costs for travel, lodging, instructor services, and classroom facilities continually increase. Time-out-of-field/away from the worksite is hard to justify, especially for those in sales and marketing, and for entry-level employees.

Some organizations are beginning to believe that training may not be needed at all in some cases, or may be cost-prohibitive regardless of need. Increasingly, organizations are asking, "Do we really have a training requirement, or are there other causes for poor performance?

Some organizations are looking to expert systems and performance support systems to reduce the need for training.

For others, the "learning organization" concept has caught on. These organizations hold that employees are responsible for mapping and achieving their own performance improvement. The organization's role is to make learning experiences available that support those employees who are willing to take responsibility for their own development.

In general, organizations are seeking suppliers who can recommend and deliver performance tools that are cost-effective alternatives to classroom instruction.

A Move from Print to On-line Documentation

Documentation is viewed by most organizations as a necessary cost of doing business. Their customers do not consider a product complete without accurate, usable documentation. Thus, they are seeking ways to reduce documentation development and delivery costs. Typical objectives are to:

Some of the strategies now used or being considered include:

Technological Support

Fewer than five years ago, the hot training technologies were multimedia with CD-ROM support and video distance learning. Both approaches now appear to be waning. And CD-ROM as a storage device for multimedia is rapidly giving way to the Digital Versatile Disc (DVD).

But distance learning is not dead. It has re-emerged in a form variously called web-based training (WBT), Internet-based training (IBT) and the like. Because most organizations large and small have access to the Internet (and intranets), WBT is the hot new trend in corporate education and training.


A Few Summary Observations

There are both positive and negative conclusions to be drawn from our assessment of trends.

Risky Trends

Blind faith in technology usually proves disappointing. There is little past evidence to suggest technological solutions alone will contribute significantly to human performance development in the future. While it is true that computer hardware and software continue to perform better and faster, the same is not true with people. We listen, read, and learn at about the same rate we did a century ago or millennia ago.

Self-paced instruction will only succeed if employees are motivated, have a felt-need for new information and skills, are encouraged to learn new job skills, and are suitably recognized for their achievements. This requires more direct management effort, not less. There is also a risk in rushing to self-paced instruction and other technology-driven distributed information systems regardless of the content and skills being taught. Some are not suited for self-study.

The urge to reduce the time made available for instruction by eliminating interactivity and practice is also risky. It flies in the face of what is known about human performance development.

Positive Trends

There is increasing recognition that performance technology can contribute to the success of organizational initiatives and change.

There is increasing resistance to the funding of training when it cannot be demonstrated to result in measurable value to the organization.

There is growing recognition that training should not be the first solution considered in attempts to improve employee performance. The organization should not invest in training if other faster or less expensive alternatives will do the job.

Van O. Wright, Ph.D. 

Some Things Never Seem To Change!

  • Performance development initiatives without strong executive-level sponsorship seldom succeed.
  • Training requirements are seldom included in product development plans; when they are, it is often "too little, too late."
  • There still is never enough time to do things right the first time, but somehow time to do them over.
  • Organized planning and scheduling for course and documentation maintenance seldom occur.
  • The need for needs assessment is still usually recognized only after a pilot class fails.
  • Few organizations measure training effectiveness in terms of on-the-job performance improvement and better organizational results.