Beware when mingling learning and development with performance management

Tim London: Separate these functions so their different priorities don't become a point of conflict.

It’s common to see more and more aspects of work being added to job titles over the years. Some of this is a natural evolution of roles as technology or market demands change; some of them are outflows of emphasis on efficiency and/or cost-cutting measures. 

The current recession, and attempts by business leaders to keep businesses afloat through furloughs and job cuts, are further accelerating this process. While this is happening across most organisational areas, of particular concern is the impact this is having on human resources divisions.

The easiest way to see this trend and spot a clear problem associated with it, is to check the job advertisements for positions like chief learning officer, head of learning and development, and the like. These jobs are often located in, or in charge of, human resources departments which, on the surface, makes a great deal of sense. 

The problem emerges when the “person specification” for these jobs is read: very often these are not focused on development or learning, but rather on compliance and performance review. Here the push to incorporate more and more responsibilities into a particular division meets with the danger of creating competing priorities. So, while each of these aspects of work makes sense in an HR team, it is crucial that they are not lumped together in ways that are self-defeating.

There are two main issues that lead to this problem: people with lots of skills in one area but not the others that are required, and the creation of outcomes that are more than likely going to significantly hamper success in one or more areas. 

Taking the skills issue first, it’s easy to see that an HR team would require a huge array of different skills, cutting across recruitment, hiring, on-boarding, legal and/or regulatory compliance, learning and development, organisational development, firing/retrenchments, and so on. These areas speak to each other in ways large and small; it is highly unlikely, however, that a single person would be able to be an expert in all of them. This can lead to job advertisements saying they are looking for someone to play a leadership role in learning and development, but list few (if any) requirements for training or experience in those areas, while simultaneously demanding knowledge of employment law or performance management. To be clear, those are important skills, but they are certainly not skills that one would associate with someone placed in charge of creating and supporting learning.

The second, and very much related issue, is that when there is no clear distinction between various roles, the priorities for each can become muddled and therefore quite problematic. When it comes to how these problems manifest in terms of learning and development, this is often seen in the tension between developing learners (asking better questions, looking for new opportunities/threats, balancing present and future needs, etc.) and more day-to-day performance management (meeting KPIs, checking compliance with regulations, evaluation for bonus awards, etc.). The former necessitates time to learn and think about new information, opportunities to try out new approaches, and systems of support and feedback. While support and feedback should certainly also be a part of performance management (though, unfortunately, this is not always the case), the other components are likely to slow things down in the short term, which can be a real threat to hitting weekly/monthly/quarterly targets.

To be clear, both of these functions (learning and development as well as performance management) clearly sit within the human resources remit. The challenge here is to ensure that they are connected in key ways to share information, while separated enough that their different priorities do not become a point of conflict. While this should look different for every organisation, there are a few questions that can help determine whether you have these two components operating in concert or causing unnecessary friction.

1. Feedback from learning and development activities should inform how performance/promotion management is carried out. How are you equipped to share this information in easy and actionable ways across the HR team (and to leaders in other areas of the business)?

2. Are you clear on what your people need to know (rules, regulations, laws, policies, etc.) and what you would like them to develop (knowledge of the industry, creative thinking, EQ, teamwork, cross-disciplinary skills, etc.)?
      a) Do your current learning and development processes speak to both aspects in meaningful ways?

3. Are there meaningful connections between HR’s learning and development design/delivery as well as:
      a) The needs of the business;
      b) The needs of managers/leaders;
      c) The needs of employees; and
      d) Processes for performance management as well as promotion criteria?

4. Does your HR team have the skills to handle both learning and performance management?
      a) If both sets of skills reside in individual people, are there mechanisms in place to clearly delineate when they should be wearing one “hat” versus the other?

The people in your organisation will determine how successful it is. Performance management is an important way to determine what is currently happening, but it is also quite different to the learning process, which will be essential to ensuring the organisation is clear about what it should be doing differently now and in the future. 

Strong organisations are clear on where these two areas differ, while ensuring that both areas speak to each other to develop symbiotically for the good of the organisation.