Targeted Training Drives Business Results

Excerpt from “Exemplary Performance: Driving Business Results by Benchmarking Your Star Performers” by Paul H. Elliott, Ph.D., and Alfred C. Folsom, Ph.D. (Jossey-Bass, January 2013).

Authors Paul H. Elliott, Ph.D., and Alfred C. Folsom, Ph.D., advocate a business strategy that drives greater results with existing resources based on benchmarking internal star performers. While their book, “Exemplary Performance: Driving Business Results by Benchmarking Your Star Performers,” is primarily targeted at executives and business leaders, it will serve to elevate their perception of the value that trainers produce when leveraging a human performance improvement approach. This synopsis from Chapter 10 focuses on one of the key components of the performance system where targeted training can drive measurable business results.

By Paul H. Elliott, Ph.D., and Alfred C. Folsom, Ph.D.

We have found across scores of projects that a significant component of your star performers’ DNA is their rich mental models of how they produce exceptional results. A critical component of these powerful mental models are the skills, knowledge, and information that your stars apply within the work process. While training is absolutely essential for ramping up new hires, you shouldn’t assume (and management often does) that training is the key tool for improving the performance of incumbents. Clearly, this is an inaccurate assumption.

Why Training Should Not Be the Default Tool for Improving the Performance of Incumbents: Historically, productivity has been a strong predictor of a business’s success. While this construct typically has been applied to manufacturing, it also now is used when discussing knowledge work. Manufacturing production constitutes an increasingly smaller proportion of the U.S. economy. Currently it employs less than 10 percent of the workforce. On the other hand, more than 70 percent of the workforce now is tied to knowledge and services industries, where productivity has stagnated, despite massive investments in information technology. Clearly, moving the productivity needle forward represents a substantial opportunity.

One of the factors contributing to this sub-optimal improvement in productivity is management’s over reliance on training as the principal tool for affecting performance. When deciding if training is an appropriate intervention to improve performance within your workforce, you should consider three important issues.

The first issue begins with a simple question:

Is the target audience performing a required task correctly some of the time?

In our work across scores of organizations, the answer to this question is almost always “Yes.” When the answer is “Yes,” it is clear that the target audience has the requisite skills and knowledge. If work is being performed correctly on Tuesday and doesn’t meet the standards on Wednesday, it’s not due to a lack of skills and knowledge. All the training in the world will not improve the performance of an audience with this variability in performance.

The second factor has to do with a simple statistic reality. Evidence from multiple studies across the last two decades indicates that when incumbents are under performing, 10 percent to 12 percent of the performance gap is attributed to skill, knowledge, and information deficiencies. The rest of the deficiency is attributed to other factors within the work system.

This leads to the third factor, which is an issue of alignment of the work systems. To optimally shift the performance curve, you must align the six performance system components described in Figure 1 (download the graphic at the end of this article). There is a basic principle within systems thinking that states if you optimize a subsystem, you sub-optimize the overall system. What this means is that if you default to training as the sole solution for improving performance and pour all of your resources into that single solution, even if the training is perfect, optimal results never will be achieved.

In this book, we stress the importance of designing the training based on the information captured from your exemplary performers. To do this requires a little background information as to the difference between declarative knowledge and procedural knowledge. Declarative knowledge often is described as “knowing what” and procedural knowledge is described as “knowing how.”

If you know how to use a copier, you have procedural knowledge. If you know the underlying principles concerning how a copier works, you have declarative knowledge. There is significant evidence that declarative knowledge is different from procedural knowledge. You can learn everything there is to know about a subject, but still not be able to use that knowledge to do anything. For example, learning the rules of grammar may help you learn the Italian language, but being able to state the rules does not mean you can speak the language. Speaking requires procedural knowledge.

Well-designed training is an effective and efficient tool for transferring the requisite skills, knowledge, and information to people newly assigned to a role. The problem is that management holds an unfounded assumption that training is the key tool for improving the performance of incumbents. When analysis determines that performance is deficient due to lack of skills or knowledge, you must decide which alternative for storing information is most effective for producing results. The options are to store the information in the memory of the performers or to store the information externally, in what we refer to as performance support.

When training to memory is required, we are strong advocates for context-intensive training. Context-intensive training is designed directly from the Profile of Exemplary Performance discussed in Chapter 4 of the book. The structure of the training is analogous to the work structure/process. The purpose of designing the instruction is to prescribe instruction that will teach the learner to perform as the role requires and, at the same time, to adjust to the needs of the individual.

For more than 25 years, we have helped organizations reach their goals by leveraging the insights of their star performers. We’ve done this by shifting the performance curve and successfully replicating the performance of stars. This method has proved successful across multiple industries such as telecommunications, financial services, automotive, pharmaceutical, and high technology. Most of the readers of this book are likely leaders and managers whose most critical output is to produce and lead high performing individuals and teams. This book willenable you to be an exemplary performer in your role as leader and provide you with the models required so you can shift the performance curve for your own department, team, or organization.

Excerpt from “Exemplary Performance: Driving Business Results by Benchmarking Your Star Performers” by Paul H. Elliott, Ph.D., and Alfred C. Folsom, Ph.D. (Jossey-Bass, January 2013).For more information, visit

Paul H. Elliott, Ph.D., is the president and founder of Exemplary Performance (EP), LLC, based in Annapolis, MD. Dr. Elliott’s expertise is in the analysis of human performance, the design of interventions that optimize human performance in support of business goals, and strategies for transitioning from tactical to strategic approaches. Dr. Elliott assists organizations in performance analysis, product and process launch support, design of advanced training systems, and the design and implementation of integrated performance interventions. Prior to starting EP in 2004, Dr. Elliott was a fellow with Saba Software of Redwood Shores, CA. From 1995 through 2001, Dr. Elliott was president of Human Performance Technologies, LLC (HPT), a provider of methodologies and training for performance consultants.

Alfred C. Folsom, Ph.D.,is the chief performance officer and vice president of Operations at Exemplary Performance, LLC, where he brings more than 20 years of experience in the field of Human Performance Technology (HPT). His most recent work has been helping identify and incorporate lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill response. Additionally, he has developed role profiles for managing directors and medical directors in the health-care industry, defined new roles in the petro-chemical industry that support the latest in reliability engineering and lowering overall maintenance costs, and worked with retail chains to work more strategically and across functional lines. Other related work includes developing qualification programs that are performance based and speed time to qualification with greater confidence in people’s ability to perform.

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