By Carol Haig, CPT, and Roger Addison, CPT, EdD

With the recent publication of Tom Gilbert’s autobiography, Human Incompetence, and the approaching 50th anniversary of ISPI, we at TrendSpotters Central revisited Tom’s classic work, Human Competence–Engineering Worthy Performance. The confluence of these three events presents an auspicious time to survey the continuum they represent. There is no more knowledgeable resource than Marilyn Gilbert, Tom’s work partner and spouse, to help us place Tom’s early thinking alongside his unfinished autobiography and consider the past, present, and future of human performance technology (HPT). We are delighted to share with our readers the substance of our wide-ranging conversation with Marilyn.

Introducing Marilyn
Marilyn Gilbert,, is a writer, editor, and course developer with a focused interest in instructional design. For many years, she was a performance engineer consulting to large companies where she solved performance problems and developed training materials. Working with Tom provided opportunities to share in the earliest thinking about performance improvement and HPT and to put his many ideas into practice in organizations. As Tom’s editor, Marilyn gave voice to much of his writing. We were impressed to learn that Marilyn also edited Ferster and Skinner’s seminal behavioral work, Schedules of Reinforcement.

Currently, Marilyn is putting the finishing touches on Writing Solutions for Behavior Analysts, an online writing course to be offered initially through the University of North Texas in the spring of 2012 and potentially at other venues in the future. Using Tom’s familiar PROBE, or Behavior Engineering model (BEM) as the instructional design foundation, combined with extensive research in grammar and linguistics, Marilyn has created a unique functional approach for teaching writing skills. She is also preparing a proposal for an accompanying book titled Writing by Ear.

Human Incompetence
Human Incompetence
The Autobiography of an Educational Revolutionist is Tom Gilbert’s unfinished autobiography. Marilyn found the manuscript several years ago and decided it should be published. The work is in two parts. The first is a collection of autobiographical stories and the second consists of tributes by people to whom Tom, or the reading of Human Competence, made a significant difference.

One story in the book that stands out for Marilyn, because it was such an influence on Tom’s thinking about education, is about a student, Robby Bender, who was able to rapidly memorize symbols and then identify them with complete accuracy. Robby provides an excellent example of the use of what Tom termed mediators or memory aids. If you read Human Competence you may recall that a mediator is a mental aid that connects concepts, like a mnemonic device a bartender might use to remember patrons’ drink orders.

Human Competence and the Early Days of HPT
Marilyn shared wide-ranging recollections of the writing and publishing of Human Competence and the early days of HPT. Tom, she said, wrote about the work he was doing. No one else had the vision of performance that he described in Human Competence. The book focused on accomplishments, showing that action (behavior) + results = performance (accomplishment).

Prevalent ideas in the early days of HPT included teaching machines and programmed instruction. Tom, however, was interested in a technology of instructional development and first introduced his ideas for what he termed mathetics in the Journal of Mathetics. He discusses mathetics again in Human Competence (p. 248). The earliest HPT models were derived from mathetics.

Tom had worked in academia and tried to market his models and tools to that audience. However, the education arena was not receptive to Tom’s ideas. Fortunately for all of us, business and government saw value in the concepts Tom was developing and were willing to take on projects to improve performance in the workplace.

Central to Tom’s thinking was that of performance as a transaction between the environmental supports and a person’s repertory of behavior. Thus, training is a transaction between teacher and student; and in business, it is between a supervisor and a worker. The BEM (Human Competence, p. 88), with its division into upper cells (Environment), and lower cells (Individual) helps us discover which cells are the likely causes of poor or non-existent performance.

Early ISPI (NSPI), Founded in 1962
NSPI, as it was then, had its roots in education, and education was Tom’s chief interest. His suggestion, in Human Competence, that there were other sources of problems in organizations besides a lack of skill and knowledge, caused many in the field to think that Tom was not interested in education.

When he brought performance to NSPI, it changed the focus of the society. Echoing Tom’s experience with marketing to academia, NSPI found business and industry more welcoming of the concepts of HPT. Major early performance improvement work was accomplished at organizations like AT&T, the Job Corps, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Military, and at other U.S. government agencies.

Tom often talked of “The Great Educational Revolution” in NSPI. The revolution referred to the technology of systematic application as evidenced in, for example, Robert Mager’s Preparing Instructional Objectives.

Marilyn’s Influence
Marilyn’s influence on Tom’s work was considerable. In the Acknowledgments for Human Competence, Tom says, “Marilyn Gilbert, my wife, has contributed so much to this book that she could well demand to be its co-author” (p. viii). She was actively involved in preparing this book for publication and even suggested that it be two separate books: one on instructional design and one for business. Unfortunately, neither the book’s first editor nor the publisher understood the book very well and were thus ill equipped to help with such decisions.

Marilyn edited all of Tom’s writings. In particular, the BEM benefited from Marilyn’s judicious question development and subsequent editing.

Advice to Practitioners New to HPT
Given Marilyn’s long involvement in performance improvement, we asked what advice she would give to newer members of our professional community. She suggested:

  • Read Human Competence, of course.
  • Read the literature of performance improvement.
  • Apply what you learn to your work with your clients.

2012: ISPI’s 50th Anniversary
As we look ahead to ISPI’s 50th anniversary, we asked Marilyn what direction she thought the Society should take as it moves into the next 50 years. She shared a number of ideas, supporting the views of several of our more advanced thinkers: that we think big and go after more significant work. What about using the tools and techniques of HPT to help build a peaceful society? Why not bring HPT into education to help the U.S. regain its academic leadership? Let’s make expressing ourselves well in writing important in all courses, not just in English class. To Marilyn’s list, we add USAID’s work in developing countries, tackling critical health issues such as AIDS, and other wide-ranging social concerns that we, as performance improvement professionals, are uniquely equipped to address as we move toward ISPI’s future 50.

Gilbert, Thomas F. (1996). Human competence – Engineering worthy performance. Washington, D.C.: ISPI.

Gilbert, Thomas F. (2011). Human incompetence – The autobiography of an educational revolutionist. Atlanta, GA: Aubrey Daniels International.

Mager, Robert F. (1997). Preparing instructional objectives, 3rd edition. Atlanta, GA: CEP Press.

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You may contact Carol Haig at or at; and you may contact Roger Addison at