Recently, my nine-year old nephew asked me, “What is it exactly you do Auntie?” I wasn’t particularly paying attention at the time so I answered automatically; “I’m a Performance Improvement Consultant sweetie” and I returned to my furious punching at the keys as I tried to capture the ideas that were racing through my mind with inadequate typing skills. My nephew, of course, wasn’t satisfied with my answer. So a few moments later, he thrust his face in front of my screen and asked me with that trademark bogus innocent look on his face “what does that mean?”
My hands stilled over the keyboard in mid-air.
The sweet little boy (I wish!) answered “What do you actually do?”
“Ummm….” How do I explain what Human Performance Improvement is to a nine-year old? I gave it my best shot:
“Well sweetie, I try to help working people improve the way they do things. Sometimes, it’s not about the people at all, but the way the bosses do things, or the processes and systems.”
“What are those?”
“Processes describe how you should do things and systems are basically a bunch of these processes put together. Sometimes, people use very complicated processes that waste a lot of time and money. So we analyze these processes and see if there’s anything we can do to improve them so that people don’t have to do things the difficult way.”
“Sorta like my math teacher insisting I do long division when I can use a calculator?”
“Well yes and no. Think of it this way: Every process and system is different depending on who does it, where it’s done and what you’re supposed to do with it. We need to invent a calculator for process to make it easier and faster. We can’t do that unless we knew exactly how that process works and what is wrong with it.”
“Oh… I see. So what does that mean for the people who are working in the company?”
“Well, their jobs become easier and faster and the company makes more money.”
“Isn’t that exploitation, auntie?” (Where does he come up with these words? Isn’t exploitation supposed to be an adult word?)
“No honey, it’s not. It’s exploitation only when the company is trying to force the people to do unreasonable things or if it’s paying the workers very little.”
“But what if the workers think that the stuff you come up with is unreasonable?”
“Well, one of the things we always do honey is to try to figure out what the people want and need. If we ask people to do unreasonable things, they will not want to stay in the company, after a while they will leave, and that means the company will lose. So, we try to balance what the workers want with what the company wants and find a solution that will make everyone happy.”
“Is that easy?”
“No, it’s not always easy, but it gets easier with time. It’s like math; you start by learning how to add and subtract, and that makes it possible to multiply and divide and before you know it, you can do really complicated mathematical equations and stuff.”
“So what’s your adding and subtracting stuff?” By that time, I was beginning to feel like twenty questions. However, some contrary part of me was beginning to really enjoy the conversation!
“Oh I’ve got a lot of basic stuff honey. For example, we’ve got Job Descriptions that tell us what the people are supposed to do. I can compare what is really happening to what is supposed to happen and if there’s any difference, there’s a problem somewhere. Sometimes, that problem is because the person working doesn’t know how or what he is supposed to do, in that case, we’ll teach him how to do it, only we call it training, not teaching.”
“Why? Is it different than teaching? It sounds the same.”
“Yeah… it is more or less the same, but training is about showing someone how to do something in the real world… not about theories and history and stuff.”
“I knew it! That stuff they teach us in school is totally useless!” Hearing that, my sister finally decided to intervene and quickly sent her beloved son to his room before she turned to me; “How could you Layla? Now he’ll never want to study anything!”
How did I get myself into this?
Despite the simplicity of the explanation I used with my nephew, it’s quite an accurate explanation of Human Performance Improvement (or Technology as it is also called) – HPI (or HPT) for short. HPI is a systematic and holistic approach to performance that encompasses any number of tools and techniques like training, re-engineering, process mapping, and restructuring to name but a few (I think I prefer the explanation I used with my nephew!). HPI is unique in that it attempts to link everything to organizational goals and objectives. In that sense, it is a results based approach rather than a wants or a needs based approach.
Another unique feature of HPI is in its focus on evaluation and Return On Investment (ROI). All HPI interventions must be followed-upon and the ROI calculated and evaluated. The final evaluation stage also serves as the final link that formulates a cycle of continuous organizational improvement.
Sounds too good to be true?
There are many instances in the lives of an HPI specialist when the model cannot be followed or fails altogether:
- When organizations fail to formulate viable goals and strategies, the first step is to ensure the long-term vision and the mission are clarified and agreed upon. Otherwise, most interventions applied to allegedly improve performance will fail to add real value.
- When organizations choose to ignore real issues due to internal politics, power games or nepotism, then interventions will ‘skirt’ around these ‘problem’ areas without actually addressing the core issues.
- Some interventions are, by their very nature, very difficult to evaluate and link to financial returns. An excellent example, as I’m sure every training professional reading this will agree, is the ‘soft’ skills like communication skills. Even in sales and customer service training, it can be quite difficult to irrevocably link any improvement, or lack thereof, with the training itself.
Culture is possibly the most difficult barrier to overcome as well as the single most complicating factor in any performance improvement project. Culture is here taken to mean both organizational culture and national culture and in the Emirates, cultural issues are all the more dominant since most workplaces will encompass tens of different cultures and will have their own unique organizational ‘flavor’. I have to admit, most of the time HPI can be a lot of difficult and intense work – but the rewards for the organization and the practitioner alike, are endless.
What can I say? I love my job!
To sum up, I’ll go back to my estimable nephew who recently informed a friend of his that his aunt who lives in Dubai designs special calculators for people so they can do their work quicker so that their bosses can make more money. Ironically – in more ways than one, he’s right!