Do you work in a course factory? Do you care?

Are you a cog in the course factory, or are you a performance consultant? Does it matter? Learn more.

Do you work in a course factory? Do you care?

By Cathy Moore

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Are you a cog in the course factory, or are you a performance consultant? Where do you or your clients fall on the following spectrum, and where do you want to be?

Course factory


Performance consultancy

My job is to create training. ————– My job is to improve the performance of the organization.
I shouldn’t question the client’s decision to provide training. ————– Since my job is to help the client solve their performance problem, I need to determine if training really is part of the solution and identify what else might help.
The only thing I ever design is training. ————– I might design job aids, create help screens, identify ways to streamline processes, encourage managers to provide stretch assignments, push for better communication tools…
My goal is to transfer knowledge. ————– My goal is to solve a performance problem, and the best way to do that isn’t clear until I analyze the problem. Maybe it has nothing to do with knowledge.
The best way to transfer knowledge is to push information at people so they’re all equally exposed. ————– If information really will help solve the problem, I look for ways to let people pull it when they need it. Training might not be necessary at all.
Training is an event, like a one-time course or workshop. ————– If I decide a practice activity will help, it might be just that — an activity, not a course, delivered in any format, maybe in a live session, maybe as part of a “try it when you want” collection of online challenges, and preferably as part of a series of activities spaced over time.
Once the training has been delivered, I’m done. ————– If the performance measure has improved, I’m happy, but I’m not done. I need to talk to the people affected by the project to find out what’s working and what isn’t.
When I finish one project, I wait for the next request to come in. ————– I notice problems and suggest solutions before someone asks me for help, because I know what my organization is trying to accomplish.

Two opposing sides?

Industry gurus have been pointing out for some time that L&D needs to stop being a course factory and become more of a performance consultancy. Sometimes they express their opinions with such zeal that it can feel like they’ve divided us into two irreconcilable groups: We’re either marching onto the bright consulting field waving the flag of the latest workplace learning model, or we’re stubbornly hiding in the basement, cranking out irrelevant courses.

Cranking out the courses in the basement factoryI agree we need to become more of a performance consultancy. In fact, I think some new models of workplace learning don’t go far enough, at least as I understand them. They correctly and importantly remind us that people learn in a million ways, regardless of our “help.” They give less attention to making sure that learning will actually solve the problem.

If we’re going to be performance consultants, we need to identify all barriers to performance. We can’t assume that knowledge and skills will help.

I also don’t think we’re divided into two opposing groups. Instead, I see a spectrum.

I’ve talked to many people who want to leave the course factory behind but have trouble seeing how they could actually do it. Some have to fight their organization to take just one step because their job title is literally “Course Producer.” To climb out of the basement, they have to drag the dead weight of their department with them.

In the title of this post, I asked, “Do you care?” Most people I’ve heard from care. They know that cranking out courses on demand doesn’t meet the real needs of the organization. They just need help finding a way out of the basement.

For a lot more about why we need to move toward performance consulting, see The Business of Corporate Learning by Shlomo Ben-Hur. Jane Hart has a recent series of blog posts on what she sees as a stark division in L&D, starting with this post. In this interview, Donald Taylor sees the L&D world as divided not into two sides but four regions on a quadrant.

Finally, before we go back to our places on the course assembly line, let us sing in solidarity with our fellow workers who are hauling out the data on the Xerox line.

Factory worker photo by Howard R. Hollem. Public domain; US Library of Congress.

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13 comments on “Do you work in a course factory? Do you care?

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  1. Cathy, I love your stuff, and agree completely with most of what you have to say. I appreciate these posts to remind me “what it’s all about!” Are you o.k. with me sharing your wisdom on my own website (with proper credit given, of course!)

  2. Look forward to your book. I’m sure it will be practical and full of good stuff.

    On performing consulting: I could write a book on how the training team lost their jobs when they became performance consultants. 🙂

    1. Tom, I’d read that book. Tell us more …

      Great post as usual, Cathy. I’ll be posting that list outside my cube for all to see–a lot of people in our organization, even the smartest ones, never give upfront analysis any thought, so it’ll be helpful to have this all summarized so nicely. BTW, though—I couldn’t get the sign-up-to-be-notified-by-email-when-my-book-is-available link to work. Just a blank screen. What’s an eager ID nerd to do? (besides put a note on my calendar for early 2016)

      1. Stacy, thanks for letting me know you were having trouble with the link. I’ve just tested it again and it’s working for me, so I’m not sure what to recommend. I’ll certainly announce in the blog when the book is available.

  3. Thank you for your perspective however, this post denigrates the role of performance consulting. I take exception to it as a formally educated and performance consultant.

    Equating training with performance is very shortsighted. I do not like how the article pigeon holes ‘performance consultants’ being equal to “training practitioners”. One who is a a training practitioner should never be called a performance consultant.

    Performance consultants are those that focus on developing and executing organizational strategy and respect/understand accounting and finance roles – e.g. operations and finance – essentially, see the organization holistically. I am truly a performance consultant spending years and now continuous professional development to be qualified as a performance consultant.

    Ajay M. Pangarkar CPA, CMA, CTDP

    1. I don’t see where I equated training with performance. In fact, my point is that assuming training will solve the problem is wrong; training is rarely enough to improve performance. For that reason I said that training designers need to question whether training is really a solution to the problem. I never said that training is performance, or that training practitioners are performance consultants. Instead, I was pointing out the huge gap between the two. My point is that training practitioners need to move toward a performance consulting role, which means leaving behind their narrow focus on training and courses. L&D needs to see the organization holistically instead of staying in the basement. I think we actually agree but it seems you don’t see that.

    2. Ajay,

      I’m not sure you read the same article I read, based on your interpretation of it. I see Cathy has already responded, but I didn’t get the impression she pigeonholed performance consultants as training practitioners. If anything, she highlighted the need to think of training as a piece, and possibly a very small piece, of what constitutes performance consulting.

      A contrarian view to Cathy’s that actually parallels her approach was given to me by an Old School ID who told me that he defines everything as a “training problem” so he is assured a seat at the table. It doesn’t mean that he immediately starts developing a class, but he does immediately go into how the “training solution” needs to fit within the broader strategy of the organization and addresses the relevant business problems in a sustainable way. Sometimes the solution is redesign of a form or computer screen and “training” consists of a one-page job aid. Other times it’s more involved. The point being that if all one does is create courses to convey information, one is short-changing the client and the organization when other solutions may be warranted. In other words, IDs who simply create courses on demand are (or should be) relics of a bygone age.

      I for one am looking forward to Cathy’s book to see what her super-stealth ninja secrets are in this regard.

      1. Rick, I love the technique you described, and it’s very close to the stealth techniques I recommend. Basically, I suggest that when someone comes to us saying, “My team needs training,” we don’t directly challenge their conclusion that training is the answer. Instead, we say we need to understand the problem better in order to design the best “solution.” We help the client identify how solving the problem will help the organization meet its goals, and we walk them through an analysis of the problem. The client sees for themselves what the best solutions are, with our help. As you point out, the “training” can end up being a job aid plus a redesign of a screen and maybe some improvements to a cumbersome process.

      2. One of the Old School IDs I met at Syracuse University’s grad program urged us to always ask, “Is the performance problem ID, PD or OD?” Those being: Instructional Design, Professional Development, or Organizational Development. I suppose this supports the proposition that not all problems require training.

  4. Cathy, thanks for presenting an interesting argument concerning the ID’s role as an influencer of performance management. Definitely some interesting points worthy of deeper thought and consideration.
    If you’re still looking for a few people to review your new book, please let me know. As owner/moderator of the LinkedIn group, E-Learning 2.0 (currently 62,000 members), I have an idea or two on how I might be able to help you in leveraging and promoting it. Let’s discuss:

  5. Cathy,

    Learning practitioners do care (the better ones at least) but the key challenge remains – “They just need help finding a way out of the basement.” Tools like Action Mapping, Learning Model Canvas, and performance mapping all support validating “Is the performance problem ID, PD or OD?” (thanks Steve Covello!) What you do at this point really differentiates whether you have the performance consultant mentality.

    Keep up the great work and I look forward to your book!