Performance Management and Training & Development

In this post, I talk about the tenstions and mistakes of handling performance management and training & development. With real stories from an organization, I highlight how these need to be integrated and conclude with two basic initiatives to do so. Please, note that names in the stories has been changed.

Is Perfromance Appraisal a Panacea or a Curse?

“Is this capability assessment going to affect my performance review by any means?” asked Fahad, one of the IT staff. “Not in direct form”, I replied. “What do you mean?” he asked. “I mean that by knowing your current capabilities, we can understand what you lack to do your job, and develop you accordingly”, I replied. “And by developing your capabilities, we enable you to perform better at your job, and hence your performance review should yield better results”, I followed. “But, we are not going to judge your performance purely on what you're capable of. That would be unfair, don't you think so?” I asked. He sighed a breath of relief and said: “Now I get it, and I can honestly tell you what I am or am not capable of!”

In most organizations, performance appraisal is considered a pivotal function in Human Resource Management, and this organization is part of the herd. Generally, performance appraisal refers to the annual ritual in which an employee and his manager discuss individual performance in the past period, and ways to improve performance in the coming period (Wilson & Western, 2001).

Theoretically, performance appraisal should be seen as a panacea for a number of human resources issues such as reward, developing employees, raising morale, improving communications, and individual goal settings. However, Taylor (1998, p. 185) concluded from an investigation of a number of research studies that: “performance appraisal is, in practice, more of an organizational curse than a panacea” (as cited in Wilson & Western, 2001).

The fact that Fahad, and many other individuals who share the same mindset, considers performance appraisal as a turning point in his job is not strange. He sees that the annual performance review is critical for him not to mess up, even if that would result in exaggerating his capabilities and sacrificing the effectiveness of his own training and development plan.

Also, the atmosphere of fear and dislike of the performance appraisal is common in the workplace, as echoed in research and human resource management text books (Kondrasuk, 2012). This only adds to the complications of appraising performance of individuals and narrows the window of potential benefits of performance appraisal if conducted properly. Performance appraisal has been said to be “one of six deadly diseases” that keep organizations from performing at their peak (Staff of Employee Recruitment & Retention, 2010 - As cited in Kondrasuk, 2012).

What is worse is that performance appraisal is increasingly being considered an annual obligation without any tangible benefits. So managers and employees were lacking the commitment, and simply were following an organizational procedure without conducting a realistic performance appraisal (Wilson & Western, 2001).

Effective Training Depends on Needs Analysis

On another perspective, the state of training in this organization is not far from what (Wilson & Western, 2001) found in their research. Training plans were sometimes the same year after year, and in many cases were left un-reviewed after being written. Also, training and development needs where not conducted. These lead in many cases to plans that didn’t relate to organizational strategy nor to personal development. The following story illustrates the current state of training and development in this organization:

Abdullah, the deputy GM of IT, sends an email about this year's training plan. “We have secured double the seats this year compared to last year. This is a golden opportunity for us to get better training”, he started his email enthusiastically. Along this email, he asked IT directors to nominate people from their teams to allocate training seats. No further information or policies are accompanying the email. After several weeks of debates and turbulence, nominations and denominations, the list is final and is sent to HR for approval and coordination.

In this organization, not only that training became a pure coordination and administrative activity, but also lacked two important stages of the training and development: needs analysis, and feedback and evaluation. “A proper training process begins with a performance gap.” (Saks & Haccoun, 2013). When an organization, teams, and/or individuals suffer from a performance gap, then a needs analysis can help identify whether a training and development activity could best bridge that gap.

Allocating training seats as quotas to different parts of the organization, and then nominating individuals for random training is not based on proper needs analysis. Hence, it won’t necessarily yield performance improvement as the performance gaps were not identified in the first place!

Moreover, training is only one of the solutions that an organization can consider to address performance issues, and is not necessarily the best one (Saks & Haccoun, 2013).

Training Doesn't End After Delivery

The other stage that is missing in training and development in this organization is “feedback and evaluation” and is best illustrated by the following story:

“We need to train all project managers on the basics of project management tools and techniques”, said the PMO director. After a month or so, two sessions were planned that targeted all project managers with or without a background on basic project management tools. The sessions were practical, so project managers were required to bring their own laptops to develop their own project plans. During the first session, the trainer was so consumed by questions from the attendees on tool locale settings. So a great deal of the session was spent on how to get to these settings, and how to change them to match the organization's requirements such as workdays and working hours. Unfortunately, by the end of the day no one was able to develop his own project plan which was the core learning outcome of this training. Although feedback from the first session was not promising at all, the second session got delivered and lessons were not learned!

For a training program or activity to be successful, it is important to see if an improvement in the individual and/or the whole organization was achieved (Saks & Haccoun, 2013). This can be done by designing a training program evaluation. And on the basis of feedback and evaluation, a training program can be modified and improved or completely eliminated if it clearly doesn’t achieve what it is set for: improving performance and/or bridging performance gaps.

The fact that the second training session got delivered, and the same mistakes were repeated is due to the absence of a designed “evaluation” of the training program.

The Importance of Informal and On-The-Job Learning

After all, this organization is not doing all things wrong. Some departments in IT excel in informal and on-the-job training which is illustrated by the following story:

“How was your training last week", I asked one of the network administrators. "It was so practical and beneficial" he replied. This was a hands-on training on computer networks, and was delivered to a team of network administrators as an on-the-job training and knowledge transfer by the vendor in a project. The project aimed at renewing the networking components as part of an IT infrastructure overhaul. The team who's handling the project needed to get up-to speed with the new technologies. This training not only allowed the team to understand the new technologies, but also gave them an opportunity to acquire qualifications that is important in their field. It was a huge boost in their confidence and skills, especially for those who only carry diplomas in computer networks.
“Right now, I'm much prepared for handling the project”, says one of the network administrators. “We needed this and planned for it for a long time!”

An individual’s development plan may include formal learning, such as classroom training, or informal learning, such as on-the-job training, or both (Squires, 2009). And the vast majority of learning in an organization is informal.

IT jobs can be classified as learning-intensive jobs, following the definition used by (Skule, 2004). According to Skule, learning-intensive jobs are those that require special education to get on board, have a steep learning curve for new hires, and knowledge and skills acquired can be outdated and forgotten with time if not practiced and updated. In this case, informal learning can sometimes be the only way to fill learning and knowledge gaps in case formal training is rare or hard to get in the organization.

This is what this case capitalizes on. The director understands the complications of planning and securing training seats for his staff, and believes in the on-job-training and knowledge transfer. So he agrees with each vendor to deliver tailored hands-on training with each project. In fact, if organizations wish to achieve Senge's vision and become learning organizations, then they need to take actions to create a work environment that facilitates informal learning (Squires, 2009). This director is one step ahead of his pears towards creating a learning department.

Another case that shows how this organization takes actions for informal learning is their deep collaboration with their regional peers in what can be called communities of practice. This is better be illustrated in the following story:

“I'm a member of committee", said an IT director. “We meet every quarter to exchange experiences”, he explained. "How cool to hear that you collaborate with your peers on common issues!" I replied. "Indeed! This is a GCC-wide committee and we learn from others, and share our own learning", he followed.

Communities of practice are groups of individuals who share common issues, meet periodically to exchange knowledge, learn from each other’s experiences, and have different perspectives on common problems (Saks & Haccoun, 2013). As argued in (Middleton, 2003), communities of practice is a key part of informal learning. He also argues that informal learning is usually considered as part of the job, and individuals are expected to do it and hence it gets rendered as invisible learning method (Middleton, 2003).

Performance & Development Management

With these challenges and opportunities gliding in the organization, a genuine and forward looking solution is a must. This is not only valid for this organization, but for all other government organizations that share the same tensions of training and development, and performance management. Fortunately, the answer lies in two simple yet important approaches:

  • Turning the performance appraisal from just an annual obligation to a forward looking process, and
  • Integrating coaching in performance appraisals and personal development.
A Forward Looking Performance Appraisal

As (Kondrasuk, 2012) suggests, performance appraisal has to be thought of as a process instead of a single event – “a format and not a form”. This requires changing current mindset of appraisers and appraisees, and it starts with training them on how to conduct proper performance appraisals. Also, instead of looking at it as a periodical ritual, performance has to be appraised informally and formally, creating a regular conversation on performance between the employee and his manager.

More importantly, development has to be integrated in the performance appraisal process. So besides looking at past performance, a manager has to look at future performance of his employees. Having a personal development plan as a major deliverable out of a performance appraisal is what can enable this forward looking perspective.

Coaching for Performance and Development

Kirkpatrick describes how an effective performance appraisal can target developing a performance improvement plan and implementing it with supervisory coaching (Kirkpatrick, 2012). Managers as skilled coaches can simultaneously develop their staff and improve their performance. As Gold et al. (2010b) suggest, coaching provides two benefits for an organization: first, individuals who are coached are more likely to improve performance, and second, managers who coach are more likely to learn about their staff and improve their performance (as cited in Bratton & Gold, 2012).

Hence, coaching becomes an integral part of both training and development and performance management, and can act as the glue between the two. So it is recommended for this organization to “put coaching skills on the top priority list for management development training and tie it in with performance appraisal program” (Kirkpatrick, 2012).

  • Bratton, J., & Gold, J. (2012). Human Resource Management Theory & Practice. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Kirkpatrick, D. L. (2012). Integrating Training and Performance Appraisal. Training, 49(4), 12-13.
  • Kondrasuk, J. N. (2012). The Ideal Performance Appraisal is a Format not a Form. Academy of Strategic Management Journal, 11(1), 115-130.
  • Middleton, D. B. (2003). Learning from others at work: communities of practice and informal learning. Journal of Workplace Learning, 15(5), 194-202.
  • Saks, A. M., & Haccoun, R. R. (2013). Managing Performance through Training and Development (6th ed.). Nelson Education.
  • Skule, S. (2004). Learning conditions at work: a framework to understand and assess informal learning in the workplace. International Journal of Training and Development, 8(1), 8-20.
  • Squires, P. (2009). The Role of On-the-Job and Informal Development in Performance Management. In J. W. Smither, & M. London, Performance Management: Putting Research into Action (pp. 157-195). Wiley.
  • Wilson, J. P., & Western, S. (2001). Performance Appraisal: An Obstacle to Training and Development? Career Development International, 6(2), 93.