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Organizational Learning - A New Paradigm

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Robert Brinkerhoff and Stephen Gill describe a new paradigm for organizational learning in their book, The Learning Alliance: Systems Thinking in Human Resource Development. They say that HRD professionals can help build an infrastructure for organizational learning by creating alliances between learners and managers, between the training department and other departments, and among all of an organization's people and processes. They describe four keys to creating those alliances:

  • Linking training to business needs and strategic goals

  • Maintaining a strong customer focus in the design, development, and implementation of all training activities

  • Managing training with a systems view of performance in the organization

  • Measuring the training process in order to continue improving it

"Whatever training leaders do, they should not become defensive about their role and their contribution to the business," Gill advises in a Training & Development article (May 1995) based on the book. 'The accumulated learning of all employees is as important to an organization as its property, inventory, equipment and machines, and products and services. It is as important as the loyalty of employees and customers. Training leaders can help companies maximize the value of learning, but first they must examine their own mental models and make the paradigm shift."


Closely tied to both the learning organization concept and the TQM movement is the so-called performance paradigm. The restructuring, reengineering, and reinventing of U.S. organizations in the early 1990s left many of us scratching our heads and wondering "What happens next?" For many corporations, nonprofit organizations, and government entities, "what's next" is the high-performance workplace.

How does the performance paradigm differ from the learning organization and total quality management? Actually, all three could work together. The characteristics of the high-performance workplace are compatible with-and enhanced by-those of the learning organization. And TQM can be an effective tool for performance support.

In some ways performance improvement is replacing quality improvement as the business trend of the 1990s. Companies that were extolling quality five years ago aren't even using the "Q-word" today. Instead they're raving about performance improvement, performance enhancement, performance support, or high-performance systems. The substitution of performance for quality has led cynics to wonder if the trend makers have simply written a new set of lyrics to the same old song. In some organizations that's a valid concern, but companies that really embrace the performance paradigm are learning a whole new repertoire.

TQM is systemic but adds its own tools and procedures to existing organizational systems; high performance may rethink everything. TQM affects all systems in an organization; high performance involves all systems. TQM uses a specific set of statistical tools to improve and track performance in small, selected areas; high performance involves an interrelated array of practices, strategies, and procedures for enhancing performance in all parts of the organization.

It's difficult to define a high-performance workplace. High-performance systems are as different as the organizations that develop and implement them. But there are some common traits, says Patricia Galagan in a December 1994 Training & Development article. Work is done by customer-focused teams. Employees have skills in many different areas. The organization is actively engaged in managing change. Collaboration is the norm. And technology is crucial to employees' work.

Galagan interviews economist and author Anthony Carnevale, who lists four prerequisites for high performance:
  • New, flexible technologies

  • New high-performance organizational formats

  • A highly skilled and autonomous workforce

  • Collaborative labor/management relations
Electronic Performance-Support Systems

The new, flexible technologies of the high-performance work-place are of special interest to trainers. These technologies include electronic performance-support systems, also known as EPSSs. A true EPSS is more than a higher-tech system of help screens. It's interactive and just-in-time. It mimics the look and feel of an employee's actual work tasks-or it guides the employee through an actual work task, asking questions that help the employee not only to solve the immediate problem, but to learn how to solve similar problems in the future. EPSSs let learners control not only when they will learn, but how they will learn.

At the moment, experts admit, most so-called EPSSs are merely automated training manuals. But the technology exists to include hypertext links to databases of expert information, to make interfaces more interactive, and to integrate EPSSs more fully into many kinds of work tasks. Training designers must work in partnership with organizational leaders, subject-matter experts, and technical specialists to develop EPSSs that are intelligent, adaptive, and effective job aids.

Training Versus Performance Support

So, your workplace is steering a course toward high performance. How does that change your job as a trainer? Rosabeth Moss Kanter believes the changes will be dramatic. As she writes in the May 1994 issue of Training & Development, 'The dawning awareness that high-performance work systems, with an emphasis on learning, hold the key to future competitive success represents a tremendous opportunity for the training profession-but only if the profession reinvents itself."

It may seem that performance support is the job of all trainers, but traditionally it has not been-at least not in many organizations. Under the old paradigm, a trainer's job was to develop and deliver training. Under the new paradigm, the job is to improve performance at the individual and organizational levels. Your job title is likely to change. Instead of trainer, you might be known as performance-improvement specialist or performance technologist. But you'll be changing more than your title. If you're to succeed in your new role, you'll need to change your entire way of looking at your work and the way it fits into the organization.

Performance improvement doesn't eschew training. But training is only one tool in the performance technologist's toolbox.

Others include job aids, electronic performance-support systems, and new organizational policies and procedures.

Here's a popular metaphor to explain the difference between training and performance support. You're an employee who is repeatedly late to work because your car blows a tire several times a week.
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