What happens when you combine the disciplines of instructional design, corporate communications, work design and incentive systems? You get human performance technology, a professional practice which seeks to build excellent performance in the workplace. I first ran into HPT, as it is known, via an announcement for an upcoming Ragan conference: Communicating with the Workforce of the 21st Century. I thought it sounded intriguing, so I got in touch with Dr. Diane Gayeski, the chair of the conference, a professor in the field and a practicing HPT consultant.
What I discovered was a discipline that, while heavy on published theory, has never really caught on as a major business buzz word. Its roots are mainly in military training, and has strongly rationalist process and assumptions behind it. Given this background, HPT has focused on uniform job/performance requirements, quick and efficient training, top-down management and an emphasis on compliance. Adoption of the practice has often stumbled given its home inside the corporation: the human resources and/or training department, generally not known for being a center of strategy with a seat at the boardroom (unfairly or not). Add to that multiple departments all trying to prove they have the keys to performance, you end up with people tripping over each other; they have little incentive to cooperate. All of these issues are recognized by Dr. Gayeski and other thought leaders in the field. But they stand by the basic premise of HPT that offers so much promise: the ability to improve department and company performance.
Dr. Gayeski wrote, Human performance technology already has a rich body of research on human behavior, learning, testing and assessment, and information-transfer methods and media. What we seem to lack is the ability to structure organizations so that people really want to improve performance not just 'take quick action' and push the responsibility on down the line.
Talk to any major CEO today and he or she should cringe at the thought that their employees don't really want to improve performance. In fact, the CEO simply has to be a major driver of any HPT efforts, given the built-in difficulties in incenting managers of departments competing for scarce company resources to collaborate on the meta-issue of performance. Dr. Gayeski gave me an example:
Let's say that sales of a product are 30% lower than expected. We need to look at the behaviors of the sales people, find out if they need training or better job aids or a different motivational system to incent them. We have a whole slate of interventions we can use. But each of these three items comes from different departments: training, communications, HR, and/or finance. The point is that the problem (30% lower sales) cannot be solved in isolation. Yet, in many cases, the answer will be develop some computer-generated sales aids or hold a one-day training session or teleseminar. without looking at wider issues of motivation or whether the right people were hired in the first place.
Dr. Gayeski explained to me that HPT presumes that the problem resides in the system, not the individual. (In fact, HPT relies heavily on systems theory.) She talked about knowledge management being a big challenge. HPT practitioners seek to understand what makes it hard to do your job well and how to best prioritize tasks to focus on those that best add value. Information overload is a major problem here, given that employees might not have easy access to the information they need in order to do their job. And that information need might run across assumptions that have been made about whether or not sales people need current business data, for example. That is why looking at the environment from a systems point if view is important, and having the buy-in of executive management is critical (so that these types of assumptions can be overturned).
HPT is a holistic profession. Dr. Gayeski likens it to a general practitioner physician who looks at the entire patient, who doesn't take at face value the problem presented, and who refers certain problems to specialists. This approach seems to have great potential as businesses move to more cooperative, and therefore more complex, systems.
While HPT doesn't offer a magic bullet, and doesn't have perfect answers for the big questions like, How do you measure knowledge worker productivity? and What happens when you add virtual teams to the mix? it does provide a range of theories and practices that offers a fresh set of thinking for people struggling to improve corporate performance. And isn't that what we need as we design and manage the future of work?
You can find undergraduate programs in HPT. At Ithaca College, where Dr. Gayeski teaches, it falls into the department of organizational communication, learning and design. Graduate programs in HPT exist as well, usually under the title of Instructional Systems Design and Performance Technology. Boise State University offers an online program, and Dr. Gayeski is one of the professors there as well.
Here are some other sources of information:Wikipedia definition
International Society for Performance Improvement
Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance, Tom Gilbert
Technology: What We Know and What We Still Need to Learn. Establishing the Practices and Philosophy of Performance, Diane Gayeski
Integrated Communication: From Theory to Performance, Diane Gayeski
Managing Learning and Communication Systems as Business Assets, Diane Gayeski
Fundamentals of HPT
Measuring Human Capital