Tips for consultants: surveying the performance landscape

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Consultants are brought into organisations to improve performance, but what data do we need and where can we really add value?

Companies usually call a consultant when there’s a problem to be solved, but what if the problem isn’t what the organisation thinks it is? How do we assess the ‘performance landscape’ (the environment in which we operate) and decide which data is relevant to analyse to help improve business outcomes?

As performance consultants, there are four main elements of the performance landscape we're interested in.

We can start with any of these, because the elements interact with each other in many different ways, but we have to begin somewhere, so let’s go with ‘performance’.

  • Performance: by performance, we mean ‘human performance’ – i.e. what humans actually do in the course of their work (their behaviour). We’re not interested in the performance of markets, technology, or products, just humans.
     
  • Performers: to obtain this performance, we need the humans themselves, the performers. Normally we’re interested in a particular population of performers, perhaps those in a particular occupation, department, company or territory.
     
  • Outcomes: the reason why we’re interested in performers and what they do, is because human performance is a major influence on outcomes. Our clients want to improve outcomes, such as increased margins, lower employee turnover, and greater customer retention. They come to us because we can help in modifying human performance.
     
  • Interventions: we do this by making interventions that will improve the competence and confidence of performers and support them as they perform their duties.

Let’s see how that all fits together …

Diagram of performance landscape

The idea is that we introduce interventions that impact on performers in terms of their competence and confidence.

All being well, that will lead to changes in behaviour, in performance on the job.

Again, if all goes to plan, that will in turn lead to improved business outcomes.

There are many complicating factors that get in the way of this process, primarily because we are not the only people looking to influence performance.

Plenty of other parties have a stake in human performance and in achieving business outcomes. These can be external to the organisation, as well as internal.

What influences whether performers perform?

Let’s start by looking at all the factors that influence whether performers do actually perform …

Diagram of performance landscape

On the left we have the performer.

Their performance can be influenced by their competence – their ability to carry out the tasks – and their confidence to actually do this. This is where we can help in terms of the learning and performance support interventions that we make.

Lots of other things also make a difference:

  • Do they have the right tools and other resources, including the time, the money and the necessary information?
  • Is the physical environment acceptable – not too hot, too cold, too cramped or hazardous in any way?
  • Is the performer in the right physical condition – strong enough, well enough, well rested, and so on?
  • Does the performer have clarity in terms of what they’re supposed to do – their responsibilities?
  • Importantly, do they the motivation to perform? This could be influenced by many factors, some intrinsic and some extrinsic.
  • What feedback are they receiving about their performance, whether this is coming from supervisors, from the system itself or from their own reflections?

From this, we can see that we could do a great job of improving competence but still not have the desired effect on the performance gap.

What can we do to influence the performer?

Diagram of performance landscape

We are not the only people trying to influence human performance.

We have formal interventions, initiated by management:

  • Learning and performance support, which is our principal interest as performance consultants
  • Employee communications
  • Reward systems and other HR initiatives
  • Policies, procedures and standards
  • Supervision and coaching

We also have informal interventions, initiated by performers themselves, such as:

  • Interactions with peers
  • Individual research and study

What affects business outcomes?

The other relationship we need to look at is between performance and outcomes:

Diagram of performance landscape

Let’s start with human performance, which is likely to be our main area of interest - but there are other factors.

Clearly business strategies, such as pricing, product development and capital investment, are all going to make a big difference.

Then there are market conditions, including supply and demand, and what competitors are doing, any of which could amplify or confound our efforts.

With our data analyst hat on, there will be no shortage of questions that need answering:

  • What business outcomes are we experiencing now and where do we want them to be?
  • What’s stopping us from achieving them now? Is human performance a major factor?
  • Assuming human performance is a factor, what’s the gap between what people are doing now and what we’d like them to be doing?
  • Why aren’t they doing those things now? Are competence or confidence important factors?
  • What’s currently being done to instil competence and confidence? Should we do something different? If so, what?
  • If we do something new, then how effective is this proving in terms of influencing behaviour? How long–lasting is this influence?
  • If we’re not being successful, then what’s the cause?
  • What impact are changes in performance having on business outcomes? Do we need to do more?

To answer these questions, we need data and the ability to interpret this data correctly. That’s where the performance consultant really starts to add value.

With the right data to hand, the performance consultant establishes their credibility, extends their influence and – most importantly of all – increases the impact they have on business.

Interested in this topic? Read Learning analytics: why we need to get better at measuring performance.

About Clive Shepherd

Clive Shepherd

Clive Shepherd is a consultant who specialises in the capability building of learning professionals. He is a founding partner of Skills Journey which provides a comprehensive curriculum of CPD programmes for those specialising in workplace learning and development.

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08th May 2019 12:37

Great article1

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