By Paul Cook, CPT, ISPI Director

Paul Cook PhotoI jumped out of the human resources (HR) department just over four years ago to land in information technology (IT). The experience has shown me, that human performance technology (HPT) and ISPI are relevant outside of the HR world where we often find ourselves.

Do not get me wrong, my experiences as part of an organization development group were deeply meaningful and I often look back wistfully, but they were also deeply frustrating. Being asked to conduct “team building” and being prevented from addressing the root causes was maddening. HR is often not seen as a core function of the business; it is increasingly being outsourced and automated. HR futurists predict that most HR functions will disappear leaving only a few HR generalists who can function as strategic performance improvement consultants with the organization’s leadership. But the finer points of benefits and compensation did not appeal to me and when the opportunity presented itself I leapt at IT.

Initially, I was a fish out of water. In the first six months, the kinder of my new IT colleagues, would often pause to explain, “What we meant wasÉ” in the same way as trying to help a child who does not understand. Speaking LOUDER and s-l-o-w-e-r, as many seemingly did, when explaining things, was not what I needed; it was learning the jargon and the cultural context.

Fortunately my HR experience was immediately transferable, because I was used to landing in strange worlds of work and quickly assessing the system. It was fun explaining H-U-M-A-N P-E-R-F-O-R-M-A-N-C-E T-E-C-H-N-O-L-O-G-Y to my new coworkers; what they readily appreciated was my experience in all that “soft stuff” like organizational change, development, and group facilitation. While I am still hazy on what a S-A-N is, and my techie friends still don’t fully get HPT, we are able to get things done.

A key attraction of working in IT, beyond better career prospects and pay, was the realization that IT usually produces technology artifacts that are often very insistent to behaviors initiated at specific times and done in a particular order to produce very defined results. While the techies only see inputs, processes, and outputs, I see a human performance system, specific behaviors triggered on cue to produce defined outcomes, with feedback on performance throughout. To use our jargon, IT produces “electronic performance support systems,” tools that support successful performance. Coming from HR where many performance interventions get shelved in a training binder, or shrugged off and ignored by leaders and performers, or overwhelmed by the next initiative, this was exciting stuff.

IT is good at identifying and documenting business processes to gather requirements (learning objectives by any other name) but often uncritically. This results in “doing stupid things faster and in greater quantity.” Often missing is an analysis of the organizational system, gaining clarity on why the process exists in first place. This is not unique to IT, we faced the same issues in HR, but IT faces a unique challenge because it is often isolated outside of the usual management of the organization. This is partly as a function of technical specialization, where the tech savvy are deeply focused on their functional responsibilities–network, security, operations, and support–and keep to themselves. But when IT ventures out to engage the organization they are also victims of “IWOTA” (Impenetrable Wall of Technical Apathy) on the part of non-IT management, whose eyes glaze over and are turned off by the “techno-babble.” So IT needs approaches to engage management and understand how the business processes are relevant to the organization.

Similarly missing from IT’s worldview is an understanding of the job performer and the context of the work that is being done. IT myopically focuses on the functionality of the “user” interface, the direct input and output of data. Engagement of the user is usually through testing and technical training, but only to ensure the technology will be used correctly. But how the technology affects the individual, the work group, and relationships with others is hazy at best and most commonly a mystery. As an example, new technology was being implemented that would allow workers to use mobile PC tablets out in the field. It was seen a boon for the organization, ending the use of paper forms, saving trips into the office, reducing errors, and producing quicker processing, all resulting in more productivity. To prepare, testing was done on the working functionality of the software and hardware, and user training was planned. Enter one performance consultant who insisted an analysis of the users be conducted prior to the training and implementation. Imagine the surprise when we discovered that many of the experienced workers had little or no experience using computers (“I’ve never turned one on”). That a major benefit “no 7am staff meeting” collided with the cultural importance of the daily staff meeting as a social link and informal information exchange. An otherwise, technically savvy solution was at risk of heavy resistance and failure because the work and worker were not properly considered.

ISPI and the field of HPT are increasingly being drawn into new worlds and fields of endeavor because what we know has relevance beyond the intellectual ghetto we have sometimes put ourselves into. My experience shows me that we have a lot to offer IT. Other members of ISPI have shown how we can improve the performance of health care, education, business management, Olympic athletes, and nation building, to name a few. There are huge opportunities for those who can bring a systematic approach to understanding an organization’s performance system and the larger context the organization functions in and who can use all this to produce results. In other words, there are enormous opportunities for someone well versed in the 10 Standards of Performance Technology.

We would like to hear your story about how you have used HPT in new worlds and publish them in the PX to encourage and inspire others.