Management Myth # 7—A Technically Superior Workforce is a Pathway to a High-Performing Business

Marcia faces a dilemma. One of her five production teams is performing well below her expectations. She ponders the array of options available to her to improve the team’s performance. Is the poor performance due to a lack of technical know-how, she wonders. Could the problem be non-technical, such as a lack of team work? Could the substandard performance be about the team’s inability to solve some of the challenging problems they face from the company’s demanding customers? So many questions to consider.

Marcia considered that may be the lagging work performance could be resolved with personal rather than technical development. Or perhaps the solution is to learn some skills in dealing with out-of-the-ordinary problems the team is bombarded with from multiple stakeholders across and outside the company? In her mind, the first step is to investigate the matter further before considering her options.

After some careful thought and some further investigation, Marcia decides to apply three tactics to help the underperforming team improve its performance.

The myth that a technically superior workforce is a pathway to a high-performing business overrates job-centered training and underrates person-centered and problem-centered learning.

© The Author(s) 2017

T. Baker, Performance Management for Agile Organizations, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-40153-9_10

She plans to firstly do a skills audit on each member of the team. Once this training needs analysis is completed, Marcia will implement some technical training programs to boost the competency levels of individual team members, where needed. She hopes this approach will lift the performance in the team with the technical skill development of individual team members.

A second approach Marcia considers is to develop the non-technical capabilities of her team members. This approach is based on personal growth, rather than technical development. Using this strategy, she wants to use a team development workshop to build levels of trust and better communication between team members. No training in communication has previously been given to develop this team, Marcia acknowledges. This team was hastily put together, without any thought of how the individuals would work (or not work) together. Yet they relied upon each other to a great extent to exchange information and share resources. The team’s interactions helped get the product out the door to the customer. This learning approach would focus on developing the members of the team personally, not technically.

Marcia’s third tactic is to adopt a problem-solving approach to increase the team’s decision-making capacity. A management strategy was proposed to review poor performance, including problem-solving and brainstorming meetings with—and between—members of the team. The complex nature of some of the problems meant the team sometimes took the wrong option under time pressure. This alternative adopts a “lateral thinking” approach to solve the myriad challenges confronting the team in their day-to-day dealings with other departments within the company and with stakeholders outside the business.

Each of the three approaches attacks the problem of poor performance from a different angle. One of these approaches—or a combination—is bound to work, Marcia thinks. She feels a renewed sense of confidence that the lagging performance issue can be fixed. By tackling the problem from several perspectives, it offers her a wider range of possible solutions to solving the learning and development issues within this poor-performing team. Using a multi-dimensional approach, Marcia comes to the conclusion that she has more chance of being successful in resolving a challenging performance management problem.1

The success of scientific management substantially relied upon teaching workers to comply with the one and only way of carrying out each job task. Learning was essentially based on technical training. In the early days of scientific management, non-technical development programs were non-existent and considered irrelevant. But today, learning and development programs that aren’t job-specific are commonplace, although still overshadowed by technical training. The overriding type of workplace learning is still based on technical mastery of the job. This is the case, even though work performance extends past the boundaries of the job specification, as we discussed in Chap. 6. Technical job skills training therefore isn’t the panacea for all performance issues. An overreliance on job-centered training can mean other viable non-technical learning and development options can be discounted.

The agile enterprise needs more than technical skill development to perform in our turbulent marketplace. Technical mastery, of course, is still important; it’s closely aligned with the specialization and standardization of work. So it’s understandable why technical training is the dominant mode of learning in workplaces. No one seriously disputes the value of technical proficiency in a high-performing workplace. But to survive and prosper, companies need non-technical proficiency too.

Across the spectrum of industries, employees are faced with a daily bombardment of problems, challenges, and dilemmas. Many of these predicaments can’t be fixed with procedural knowledge and process skills learnt from technical training. As I’ve said a few times, thinking outside the box is the new norm. There’s rarely a neat, prescriptive answer to resolving complex, left-field problems. The answers aren’t always going to be found in the company procedure’s manual.

More and more of these out-of-the-blue challenges facing people at work require thinking on one’s feet. Technical training, as we discussed in Chap. 4, doesn’t teach people to think laterally. Essentially, technical training does the opposite; it teaches trainees to follow procedures, processes, and systems. A key assumption supporting technical learning is that work situations are reasonably predictable and so can be resolved in a particular way, using a specific method. This idea is at the heart of scientific management and the stable and predictable marketplace it was borne out of.

With this explanation of technical training, I want to clarify the difference between training and learning and development. Training is a subset of learning and development; training is one of several approaches to learning and development. Furthermore, it’s primarily concerned with enhancing the technical skill of the job-holder. Learning and development is a broader concept that takes into consideration both technical and non-technical dimensions of learning. Learning and development, being more comprehensive, covers many people development practices essential for building and sustaining organizational agility.

Consider the situation Marcia was put in at the beginning of this chapter. She wisely considered adopting a multi-dimensional people development perspective in overhauling one of her poor-performing teams. Marcia’s plan included both technical and non-technical dimensions of learning. It makes sense to invest in a range of learning options to improve performance. Through combinations of technical and nontechnical learning options, organizational leaders have greater scope for promoting agile performance. Putting it another way: The leader has “more strings to their bow” by applying a multi-dimensional learning and development approach to a performance situation. This multidimensional strategy shifts the emphasis from training to learning and development.

So in summary, the concept of learning and development is multifaceted. Training is one dimensional and one of several components of learning and development; its focus is substantially on technical skill development. Personal development and problem-based learning are the two additional dimensions that make up learning and development. Most workplace learning options can be classified as job-related, person- related, or problem-related. These make up the three dimensions of learning and development.

Of these three dimensions, the job-related component has been the more popular dimension since the beginning of scientific management. Work has transformed and so has the marketplace. We need to fundamentally rethink how we approach learning and development in light of this transformation.

As we know, performance at work is more than job mastery. As an illustration, being adaptable and enterprising are core contemporary competencies of high performers. These personal attributes are nontechnical. A technical training program can’t effectively teach people to be adaptable and enterprising. The agile enterprise needs a comprehensive interpretation of learning and development; one that’s broader than the narrow, but nevertheless important, limits of technical training. Thorough technical training isn’t effective for all performance matters in the workplace.

Apart from the indoctrination of Taylorism, the perspective a company takes in developing its employees says a lot about its collective attitude toward people. If people are viewed as a commodity, for instance, hired to help the company achieve its ends and nothing else, the development focus will surely be exclusively on technical training. At the other extreme, an employer who views employees as equal partners will be very receptive to a more eclectic approach to learning and development. This would include personal and career development opportunities. It’s this collaborative thinking and the application of a balanced learning and development program that stimulates a culture of agility, enterprise, and adaptability. I have more to say about this is Part III.

So the three dimensions of learning and development can be expressed as:

  • • job-centered,
  • • person-centered, and
  • • problem-centered.

Each dimension has an apparent focus in its application. They separately emphasize a philosophical belief about development and have strengths and weaknesses. Briefly, the job-centered dimension focuses on technical training. The person- and problem-centered dimensions are non-technical in their orientation. Together, the three dimensions make up the multi-dimensional approach needed for agile performance.

Let’s take a closer look at each dimension.

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