Beyond Training – A Four-Factor Performance-Improvement Model

As the director of safety for a large commercial tree care company, I believe in the benefits of training. I also believe that employee development contributes to organizational improvements in safety, productivity and quality. I know that training can provide employees with the necessary knowledge and skills to boost performance. However, I have also found myself wondering why some training events are more effective than others.

Frequently, training is thought of as synonymous with performance improvement. Although knowledge and skills are key components in performance improvement, there are other factors that can support or impede the application of knowledge and skills. The general assumption is that training, if done properly, will naturally improve performance. Unfortunately, training alone is not guaranteed to change behavior or help an individual apply the newly acquired knowledge and skills covered in training.

I have learned there are personal and environmental factors that influence the application of knowledge and skills covered in training. Because of this, I created a four-factor performance-improvement model that can be used to maximize the benefits of training. This model can be used by trainers and leaders to help others reach a performance goal. Because the model incorporates personal and environmental aspects of performance improvement, the four-factor model can be used to maximize the benefits of training.

The four-factor model consists of training, information and feedback, resources and processes and the work environment. (see Figure 1, facing page) By managing all four factors, a leader or trainer has the best chance of helping an individual apply their knowledge and skills in the workplace.

By definition, training involves the communication of information from one person to another. Well-designed training considers the overall performance goal and helps the trainee bridge the gap between the actual performance and the desired performance. The foundation of effective training is to teach an individual the necessary knowledge and skills to bridge this performance gap. Well-designed training is focused on the performance goal and what an individual might need to do to reach that goal.

Frequently, the training occurs and it is then assumed that an individual will automatically apply the knowledge and skills learned in the training. The other three factors illustrate that there are elements that can support or inhibit the application of knowledge and skills in the workplace.

Information specific to the performance goal is important to support the application of knowledge and skills. For example, an individual may receive training on pruning techniques, but a lack of information may inhibit the application of knowledge and skills in the field – a work order may have incomplete information on the performance objectives, therefore impeding the application of the newly acquired knowledge and skills. Alternatively, supporting the goal with clear pruning objectives can boost overall performance. Because relevant information supports the application of knowledge and skill, leaders should ensure that employees have the information they need to do their jobs according to the performance goal.

Similarly, feedback is an important aspect of performance improvement. In order to appropriately apply knowledge and skills, people must know whether or not they are reaching the goal. Proper feedback is focused on the performance goal and the gap between the actual performance and the desired performance. With the pruning example, a trainee may have been given training on reduction cuts. Proper feedback reinforces the application of knowledge and skills related to making reduction cuts. A trainee needs reinforcement of their behavior so they will know whether their behavior is satisfactory. In the absence of feedback, there is no way for an employee to know if they are reaching the performance goal.

Additionally, resources and processes can support or inhibit the application of knowledge and skills. Most tree workers will understand the difference between pruning a tree with a sharp saw compared to a dull saw. As an aspect of resources, proper equipment maintained in good condition can support the application of knowledge and skills. A skilled worker will not be able to perform to their maximum potential if they do not have access to the appropriate resources that support performance. Pruning a tree with a dull saw can slow down even the most skilled worker. Leaders should provide employees with the right tools for the job in order to maximize the benefits of training.

Frequently, training occurs and it is then assumed an individual will automatically apply the knowledge and skills learned in the training, which is not always the case. Photo courtesy of the author.
Figure 1: The four-factor performance-improvement model that can be used to maximize the benefits of training, particularly by trainers and leaders, to help others reach a performance goal. Courtesy of the author.

Work processes are also an important aspect to consider when applying the four-factor model. The work process should support the application of knowledge and skills. To support training, the work process should provide opportunities for practice. An individual trained in a skill will quickly forget that skill if they are not allowed to apply their skills in a work setting. For example, training on pruning will likely be forgotten if a climber is not given the opportunity to practice the skills involved with pruning. The work process should allow individuals to build their skills through practice. Although production pressure doesn’t always allow time for this level of practice, a leader should consider ways they can incorporate practice into the work process.

The work environment can support or inhibit the application of knowledge and skills. A positive work culture is an important factor that influences an individual’s performance. In the workplace, culture can be understood as a set of shared beliefs and assumptions. Commonly, culture is unspoken yet understood by the individuals involved. Each individual within the work environment defines culture by what is experienced. Culture encompasses all the other factors in the four-factor model and frames them within the context of the employee’s experience. In most cases, assumptions about culture are made based on expectations and emphasis.

In terms of leadership, this fact about culture reveals an opportunity to reinforce the application of knowledge and skills learned in training. In order to reinforce learning, the employee needs to witness others demonstrating the same behaviors. If an employee observes others doing something contrary to the training, it won’t take long for the employee to follow suit. As such, the work environment is a powerful reinforcer.

A positive work environment can support learning. A negative work environment can inhibit the learning process. In this way, learning reinforcement occurs based on the individual’s experience within the work environment. For example, an employee may have received training on proper pruning, yet the techniques are not reinforced by others. There may be cases when the specific techniques learned in training are actively discouraged by a leader or colleague. Alternatively, the application of knowledge and skills can be encouraged by a leader. Reinforcement occurs when a leader demonstrates the behaviors taught in training.

A leader who wishes to reinforce the knowledge and skills taught in training understands all aspects of the four-factor model as they relate to the employee experience. Training is an important aspect of performance improvement. However, training alone is not guaranteed to improve performance or change behavior. Employees need specific information that supports the performance goal. They also need feedback to know whether or not they are doing their job well. Additionally, an employee must have the right tools available to support the application of knowledge and skills. Work processes also should facilitate the application of knowledge and skills. By managing all of the factors in the four-factor model, leaders can support the learning process in a way that maximizes the benefits of training.

Bill Owen, CTSP, QCL, is director of safety and fleet with Arborwell, an accredited, 23-year TCIA member company based in Hayward, California.

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