The Abacus Group, Inc.




The "Missing Linkage" in Performance Improvement

By: Oliver McClellan

While refilling our coffee cups at a client's technical training center, Phil Schuman & I overheard an exasperated graduate of the company's comprehensive data technology training program say to another Account Team student:

Now what ?
Iíve been through the entire training program,
but I still donít know how to use what Iíve learned,
much less remember all the details.
The studentís frustration was real and compounded by the fear that confiding this to management would be detrimental to their career.

Imagine that you are the CEO of this company. Your account teams are seasoned professionals experienced in all aspects of their industry. In the past several years, you have invested millions of dollars in providing the very best data technology education for your account teams. How do you feel about the low customer satisfaction rating your account teams continue to receive from customers? Frustrated and bewildered? After all, the company has fulfilled its obligation to provide the tools necessary for success including:

  • Extensive sales training courses over the years
  • Industry training and general experience working within the industry
  • Training for every product/service offered by the company
  • Extremely comprehensive data technology training (8+ weeks!)

So, what's the problem? Why canít seasoned professionals take the ball and run with it? Part of the answer lies in the misconception that given the right information people will always be able to "put it all together" to complete the customer solution puzzle.

This misconception is driven to some extent by the personal experiences of operational and training decision-makers. People tend to extrapolate their experiences over a period of time and apply it to individual learning situations. Consider the sales/marketing/training Vice President who attended numerous training programs over the years and was able to "put it all together" to become successful. It would be natural to assume, when making a decision about addressing a specific training need, that a training class is just one more piece that the learner would plug into their experience base.

A second misconception is that exposure to information, even when not learned, is better that no exposure. The "fire hose" technique dazzles most learners in a technology curriculum generating great level 1 and level 2 feedback. The problem is that there is minimal performance improvement. Not only is this a bad business idea, it's also counter-productive for the learner.

Let's go back to the student's comment, "Iíve been through the entire technical program, but I still donít know how to use what Iíve learned, much less remember all the details." Clearly for this student, training activity and learning occurred, but performance improvement did not.

A common mistake that invites poor return for the training investment dollar is developing a course/curriculum that focuses on what must be learned versus what must be done on the job. The course/curriculum focuses on topics that the organization feels is important overall, and what must be learned to achieve results. This approach seems logical, but the problem with focusing on what must be learned is that individuals and teams are charged with, and are responsible for specific tasks (sales, admin, support, products, etc.). It's counter productive to just learn information, instead of what I need to do my job.

The student's comment, "much less remember all the details," is a result of the "exposure to information, even when not learned, is better that no exposure" misconception. I'm reminded of a line in Simon and Garfunkel's song "Kodachrome" that says; "When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it's a wonder I can think at all." Filling the knowledge funnel with unnecessary information may make the organization happy, but if it doesn't have a direct linkage to performance objectives it's a waste of resources.

An important concept in performance improvement is linkages. There is an external linkage between new learning and how to apply the learning on the job. External linkages include:

  • Goals and Objectives - Quantifiable measures of performance - revenue, production, response times, and customer satisfaction.
  • Performance Requirements - What individuals must do to meet the goals and objectives.
  • Operational Environment - The systems and processes that support performance requirements.
  • Training Needs - Identifying learning interventions that support performance requirements.

Internal linkages are connections between new information and the student's existing skills and knowledge. Internal linkages influence how we learn by improving understanding and retention, while external linkages influence what we learn. Both must be considered to maximize the companies ROI.

Where did this company go wrong and how can you avoid a similar fate? There are no easy answers to these questions, but here are a few suggestions.

  • Make sure that your organization is clearly focused on performance and not training.
  • Changing more than the titles of training development personnel from Training Specialist to Performance Improvement Specialist.
  • Change from event focused training activity to systems focused performance improvement.
  • Identify the external linkages that have a major impact on individual and account team performance, and think of them as a system that works together.

If you were the CEO of this company you might mistakenly conclude that the answer to the problem of poor customer satisfaction ratings is to provide additional training activity focused on topics like consultative sales skills and listening skills. In fact, that may be the recommendation of a training or performance support organization that is focused on what individuals must learn, or favors less organizationally intrusive training activity.

The reality in this example may be that additional training is unnecessary. The problems may be better addressed by identifying the business goals and objectives - in this case improving customer support ratings - and determine:

  • What individuals and account teams must do on the job to meet those goals and objectives.
  • The internal and external linkages that support these goals and objectives.
  • The gaps between target and actual performance.

This information will form the basis for developing a performance model that will identify performance results, competencies, quality measurements, and work environment factors.

There is no magic to performance improvement, but one key to finding The Missing Linkage in Performance Improvement is to stay focused on what people must do in their jobs, not just the learning activity.


So, what was the solution to the CEOís customer satisfaction problem and the graduates confusion about how to use what they learned? As it turns out, the two problems were closely related.

First, the confused graduate should not have attended the classes at all. Their job - what they do - didnít require that they receive the comprehensive data technology training to support their account team efforts. Second, the graduate - an order processing specialist - was absent from the account team for a period of weeks attending the training and actually contributed to the poor customer satisfaction rating.

How could this have happened? Easy, the curriculum was designed to raise the knowledge level of account teams across a broad range of technology topics. The focus of the curriculum was on specific training activity - not on how the knowledge would be used by the learners on the job. Then, to save development money, the training was offered to a variety of employees outside the target population. After all, any training is better than no training at all. Isnít it?

The confused graduate never had a chance. Even though he/she was able to comprehend the information and graduate from the curriculum, there were no linkages to their job and only peripheral linkages to the organization's goals and objectives. The student's participation in the curriculum was a total waste of time, money, and more importantly, productivity.

If you would like more information about our approach to performance improvement...
Drop either of us an Email, and we'll be happy to chat.

Oliver McClellan -

Phillip Schuman -
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This page was last updated on April 19, 2001 -