Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Performance Paradox

The Performance Paradox

I believe that for L&D professionals to be become truly effective one of the changes we need to make is to stop focussing so much on learning.   I realise that sounds a little crazy because helping people to learn things is what we are all about – isn’t it?  

I have participated in many beautifully facilitated and wonderfully crafted sessions with clear & focused learning outcomes, including interactive activities which involved participants in sharing experiences and from which we were all able to identify things we had learnt.  (OK – perhaps I exaggerate - I’ve also participated in some sessions which were dull, overly filled with slides and poorly run – but that’s another story).   But if what we are learning isn’t relevant to what we are doing in the workplace, if there is no encouragement given to use what has been learnt, if there is no compelling incentive to overcome our human tendency to return to what we were doing previously, then what chance is there that what we have learnt will have any impact at all on what we do at work and the results we achieve?

We need, as L&D professionals, to focus not on learning but ‘performance’.  Unlike school teachers we are not in the business of ‘education’ but in the business of business – well at least of enabling the people in our organisation to contribute more effectively to achieving the organisation’s objectives. So, that means that we need to keep our focus on ‘performance’.   As Clark Quinn puts it in ‘Revolutionize Learning & Development’ ‘The focus of learning and development is to prepare people, but we need to focus on people doing, and work backwards to how we prepare them.’ (2014)

Everything else that we do follows on from this focus on performance.

If we are identifying needs – we need to consider not just the knowledge, skills & behaviours that learning addresses, but anything that impacts on the overall performance of individuals & teams.  So that means considering factors such as: access to equipment; resources; systems & processes; management support; information & feedback provided; or organisational culture and deciding if they could be affecting performance and if so, addressing these issues alongside any learning needs. 

There will be times when a learning solution simply isn’t the most effective answer.  Increasingly, we don’t need to have all the knowledge to do our jobs effectively in our heads, but at our fingertips – in performance support tools and accessible through our network of colleagues & external contacts.  In our complex and fast-changing world, we can’t possibly manage to have all the knowledge we need within our heads, so we have no choice but to learn to access it as & when we need to.

This means designing learning solutions that may run alongside performance support tools or with other changes designed to address these other factors which are impacting on performance.

By focusing on ‘performance’ from the outset, we do aside with concerns about the ‘problem of learning transfer’ because it is hard-wired into our thinking right from the start.   Evaluation of the impact of L&D becomes more straight forward – we focus on the impact that the total package has had on – you guessed it – performance – using the measures used by the organisation.

So, it makes perfect sense - let’s focus less on learning and more on performance!  Sometimes less is more.

 (This post was originally written for CIPD ToolClicks LinkedIn Group and published in March 2015)

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals become even more effective.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance.

Follow me on Twitter @BurnhamLandD

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Learning: In and Out of Comfort Zone

Rachel Burnham writes:  

Here is a Sketchnote Infographic, based on the session I delivered in the exhibition at the CIPD Annual Conference on 5 November 2015 in Manchester, on behalf of MOL Learn.

You may also be interested in an earlier blog post I wrote on the same topic ‘Zoning – In and Out of the Comfort Zone’.

Rachel Burnham
Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals become even more effective.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance.
Follow me on Twitter @BurnhamLandD

Sunday, October 11, 2015

A Paean of Praise for the Bravery of Learners

Rachel Burnham writes: 

For the learners, who take risks and stretch themselves when being assessed, using technology to engage others (but that may or may not work at the crucial moment) or by choosing to go powerpoint-free.

For the learners, who offer their peers honest, constructive feedback when it would be so much easier to be nice, bland and safe.

For the learners, who freely share their expertise, ideas and resources with their peers, enriching the learning experience for all.

For the learner struck so nervous at the thought of a practical assessment that tears fell, but who successfully completed their assessment and has gone on to further learning in that same area.

For the learner who questioned the value of learning about report-writing most strongly and who took the trouble two weeks later to tell me they had been asked to write their first business report for work and were using the learning from the programme.

For the learners, who say ‘IT really isn’t my thing’ and then get experimenting with all sorts of tools & technology.

For the learners, who have graciously questioned their grades & feedback and sometimes have led me to find I’ve made a mistake.

For the learners, who have taken the time and had the courage to offer critical feedback to improve the learning experience, even though I was also their assessor and still had assessments of theirs to mark.

For all of us, who see ourselves still as learners, with so much to discover.

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals become even more effective.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance.

Follow me on Twitter @BurnhamLandD

Sunday, October 4, 2015

This moment, this minute and each second in it...

Rachel Burnham writes: ‘This moment, this minute and each second in it’ – this phrase and the music that accompanies it have been haunting me all summer – echoing around in my head.  I have frequently found myself singing them whilst working, washing up, gardening or even walking down the street.  I couldn’t remember where they came from, but they seem to connect me to being more mindful in all that I am doing – to paying attention to what is around me, appreciating it and being fully present.

Yesterday, I picked out a CD to listen to and there it was – they are the opening lyrics to a song by Harold Arlen, who also wrote ‘Over the Rainbow’, ‘Get Happy’  and one that always makes me smile ‘Lydia, the Tattooed Lady’.   Apparently, his father, who was the cantor for a synagogue, was so proud of Harold’s music that he used to set the psalms to them and sing them in the synagogue - I’d love to have heard that!   The words to this song are by Johnny Mercer and it was written for a Fred Astaire vehicle.

‘This moment, this minute and each second in it’ is the opening line from a song called ‘My Shining Hour’.  I find the rest of the song rather schmaltzy, but this line inspires me and has clearly stayed with me.

Most recently I have been focussing on being more mindful in the sessions I am facilitating.  Reflecting on this, I find it makes me a much more effective facilitator, more attuned to the group and particularly to individuals, better able to help them to learn.  It aids my concentration and enables me to flow.  Incidentally, it helps me to enjoy the experience even more and the time just flies by.

I was recently asked about how as a trainer you can cope with and perform effectively, when you are doing the same session over and over.  My experience is that being more mindful helps with this.  By focusing on the here and now and what is actually happening with the group and with individuals, it makes every session different and unique.   By listening, observing and responding to what I notice, I am better able to co-create with the group a session that meets their particular needs – even if it is fundamentally the same material, based on the same learning outcomes.

Here are some of the things that seem to make it easier for me to be mindful when facilitating:

  • Being prepared – If I haven’t done the preparation I need to for the session, then it is much harder to focus on the people I am working with and what is happening in the session and as a result I get too focused on the content and my delivery.   I work on doing enough preparation to build my comfort, so that I feel able to let go of the structure and the content and focus instead on helping the people I am working with engage with what they want/need to learn.  

  • Being organised -  This is all about having all the materials, resources, IT facilities and other practicalities thoroughly set up and ready to go, so that they aren’t a distraction.   It can include making sure I am confident in any new equipment/software being used and also having a Plan B in place should things go wrong.

  • Personalising and being personal – When I work with groups over more than one occasion, I like to include within my prep some time to think about the needs of each individual and also how the group may engage with the material to be explored.   This may not be terribly extensive, perhaps just in the journey time, focusing in on each individual and bringing to mind what I know about them – their role, their priorities, the progress they are making, any personal issues – not necessarily problems, it might be a holiday or house purchase.   By doing this, I think I am better able to draw upon this within the session. 

    Where I am working with individuals for the first time, it is good to be able to get chatting with people as they arrive and really pay attention to this – being mindful from outset.

  • Being fully present in the session – The key thing for me here is choosing not to be distracted and to be really there with the people I am working with.  I am aware that sometimes I can get drawn into answering emails or checking social media or chatting to a colleague in breaks or whilst the group is doing an exercise – the lure of multi-tasking.  I am finding it more fruitful not to do this, but to stay focused on the group.

  • Letting go – Sometimes, things don’t work out as planned – the technology for a webinar lets you down, the venue hasn’t set out up the room as requested, you’ve messed up and not got with you some prop or resource that you wanted to use, or learners are late.   And when that happens it is easy to spend time focusing on what you had envisaged and the gap with what is now possible or for feelings of annoyance or being hassled to dominate.   I am learning to move on and let go, focusing on what is possible rather than what might have been.  And that seems to be more helpful for me.

  • Managing my own energy levels – I know I am a better facilitator when I am well rested, not overly stressed and feeling in good health, so it makes sense to pay attention to all these things.   On the day the things that personally make a difference to me are:

    • having a bit of peace & quiet as I get ready for the day, so I have a clear head;
    • eating well – I’m diabetic, so this is something I always have to keep an eye on – if I can feel myself getting a bit ratty or lacking in concentration, it is often because my blood sugar is a bit low, so a supply of healthy snacks is essential; and
    • making sure I get enough water to drink during the day.

You may find it helpful to think about what makes a difference to your own energy levels.

I have been finding it very helpful to focus on being more mindful, both when facilitating and in many other parts of my life.  If you haven’t tried it for yourself you might want to give it a go.

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals become even more effective.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance.

Follow me on Twitter @BurnhamLandD

Sunday, August 2, 2015

On loving home grown tomatoes and what that's got to do with learning

Rachel Burnham writes: Like a great many people I much prefer home grown tomatoes to the ones bought in shops – in depth of taste and scent they are far superior.  The tomatoes in our allotment greenhouse aren’t quite ready to pick yet this year – but their distinctive slightly spicy scent is already in the air and the vines are filling with warm orange globes – maybe by the end of the week, we’ll get our first pick.  
Courgettes, lettuce, yellow rasberries and of course tomatoes - crop 2014

On our allotments, which we share with another family, and for which I can take precious little credit for this year, we grow lots of different fruit and veg – potatoes, onions, shallots, garlic, broad beans, runner beans, little purple beans, rhubarb, strawberries, raspberries (personal favourite), spinach, chard, white carrots and so on.  In my view, the flavour of pretty much any of these is better than the shop-bought equivalents – something to do with picking when actually ripe; freshness due to less distance to travel; and of course being able to favour flavour over appearance, when picking which varieties to grow. 

I like home-made jams and pickles – and sometimes manage to make my own, but if I can’t get home-made it is great to get ones made by smaller producers with higher fruit content and fewer additives.  I have a great affection/craving for damsons and in recent years we have done a family trip to the Lyth Valley in Cumbria in order to get fresh damsons and secure essential damson jam supplies for the year.  This is the kind of jam that the big producers just don’t make – it is where artisan producers come into their own – though at a cost.

I love to cook and produce food from basic ingredients.  Nothing fancy.  An essential part of my weekend is making soup.  I make lots of meals from beans and lentils, having been vegetarian since my teens, with an emphasis on what is in season and available locally.

In fact, it would be fair to say that I love everything about food, cooking, growing it and of course, eating it.

And I love everything about learning – identifying what’s needed & what’s not, planning, designing, curating, facilitating, sharing and of course learning myself.  

But not everybody feels the same about cooking or learning.    

Some people say that they don’t know how to cook and that they can only do a few things and so get bored with what they can make themselves and rely on take outs or ready meals – always on the look-out for something new.   Others feel it is a waste of valuable time to cook and they’d rather get on with living – and I do seem to spend an inordinately large amount of time growing, preparing and washing up afterwards – the time seems worth it to me and a necessity that is part the richness of life rather than an alternative.   More parallels with learning.
Chard 2014

Of course, there are many whose choices around cooking are limited by poverty, even in this country and whose access to fresh ingredients, fruit and vegetable is limited by budget - where just getting enough for the whole family to eat is an achievement. 

And there are some people who love fast food – the pizzas, the burgers, the chips and the kebab.  Often the sights and smells of this have an immediate appeal – at a fun fair pink candyfloss can have its attractions – a bit like conference speakers who are full of jokes, funny hats and easy models.   Not that there is anything wrong with the occasional bit of fast food - I have a soft spot for the veggie burger made by one of the major burger chains and nothing, but nothing beats fish and chips after a cold November afternoon working on the allotment.

But the best meals, like the best learning opportunities, involve a number of aspects:

  • Being hungry; 
  • Fresh, quality ingredients – not disproven theories, or models pulled out dusty from the back of a cupboard;
  • Skills in putting them together – more on this in a moment; and
  • Presentation – my father could never understand my mother ‘fussing’ over the presentation of food and wanting to have a nice mix of colours in the food on the plate.  But presentation of food and learning does make a difference to the appetite for each.

Some of the best meals are the simplest, only needing basic skills that anyone of us could do with a bit of support.  Not every meal needs to be Michelin starred creation.  

I’ve learnt so much from home-made YouTube videos – production values not always that great, sometimes with a pause whilst the host puts the barking dog out of the room, but free, easily accessible and effective.   Not unlike scrambled eggs with mushrooms and grilled tomatoes (home grown, of course).

Sometimes, it is time with friends/family/colleagues that makes a meal special - the conversation, the exchange of ideas, the understanding of background & context.  The food is only an excuse – a starting point for the real feeding.  And the skills involved may not be in the content creation (the cooking) but in hosting and facilitating those conversations.

Sometimes it is right and proper to give a meal the full works – a relaxed setting, the elegantly nuanced menu, the skilfully prepared dishes, the choice of wine, the doggy bag to take home.

Just as with our eating habits, so we need to adopt a healthy approach to learning – it can’t all be restaurant meals or fast food, but a mixed and varied diet.  Home grown learning can be rich in flavour, contextual, simple but effective.

This is something that many in L&D are grappling with.  And more of us need to.

The occasional stick of candyfloss won’t do you any harm, but don’t mistake it for real food.

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals become even more effective.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance.

Follow me on Twitter @BurnhamLandD