Improving Human Performance by Identifying the Gaps

  • Written By: Verónica Inoue
  • Published: July 16 2007

Improving Human Performance by Identifying the Gaps
Featured Author - Vernica Inoue

Verónica Inoue: Why is the human performance technology (HPT) model being implemented in companies in the United States and other developed countries, but not in organizations in Latin America and Spain?

Mariano Bernádez: Methodology and practice are two very different things. From the practice standpoint, I think the issue with performance in Latin-American organizations in general—although I'm more familiar with those in Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Spain—is very clear: we have made all the mistakes inherent to practice, and we continue to make them. This is a way of learning and improving. That's why there are companies that are able to survive in spite of having great disadvantages compared to their competitors. The companies that will survive this natural selection process are the ones that will adapt and find solutions for some performance issues. But the fact that they survive does not mean that they are good; they are just not as bad as other organizations.

Now, a few companies are able to apply the methodology successfully. They already have international structures. They are familiar with the methodology and see their companies as systems with a specific priority (that is, to sell, to control expenses, etc.).

What is happening in Latin America is that the environment is ever changing and has become unstable. Therefore, companies adopt strategies to adapt to these changes that don't operate as systems. In cases like this, what helps these companies survive becomes the cause of the next crisis.

As an example, an organization adapts and becomes a government supplier. Later, politics and the government change and favor privatization, which actually happened in the 1990s. However, remnants of a government supplier system remain in the system that is now private. When a company is not perceived as a system, its internal areas develop at different rates, and may become incompatible with each other.

VI: Why is this model not applied? Who in the organization should back this proposal?

MB: In general, these books are written for business people, managers, and directors, whose jobs are to develop new projects or new organizations, and who face the problem of understanding the business as a single entity. This problem starts outside the company, in the market and with the customers, and then attacks the company's internal systems.

This is difficult mainly because when we think of performance, we think of individuals—either the individual who has a problem or the individual who is going to solve it. In other words, [we think of] the individual who shows poor performance, or the leader who will create a new vision and renew the company.

From our experience—and the Rummler Law—we know that in a fight between the individual and the performance system, the system will win 95 percent of the time. This means that we don't perceive the rest of the system components that are not related to the individual. A person can be very competent, but are the goals clear? Are the goals consistent with the market's needs? Is the strategy compatible with the work systems that are in place? Do we reward good performance or bad performance?

For example, take an organization that rewards individuals who achieve a specific sales quota. If the organization lacks sound control mechanisms, it may find that sales are low specifically because its system is stimulating only one area that is potentially harmful to the organization.

We can also end up punishing individuals who do things correctly. An example of this is a company that has a very unorganized system, where competent people are assigned all the tasks that other people in the organization are not able to complete. This creates a situation where some employees do very little work, and others, too much. Such conditions can generate a high rate of turnover, where people leave the organization while new, enthusiastic individuals come in; a few weeks later, these new employees either leave too or start a crisis.

The system becomes invisible. Although a system has seven performance components, we generally only see those related to individuals.

VI: How does the HPT model address this issue?

MB: The performance technology system helps us know what will happen before we take any action. That is, the consequences our actions will have on a given set of factors.

It's like playing pool … hitting the ball is the easiest part, but knowing how it will bounce is difficult. A good player uses the rail cushions, which, in this example, represent the components I mentioned before. Performance technology is like having seven key components that must be taken into account simultaneously. The book [Human Performance Technology] mentions the questions we must ask before implementing a partial solution.

Another important aspect is that the ideas in this book should not be applied only before implementation, because they also help you see the big picture in the organization. Many of the problems we see in human performance arise from applying solutions without having a full understanding of the issues. We launched e-learning, thinking it was this great technology, and although it is useful in making learning accessible to all in an organization, it might not be what we need.

Methodology helps us identify the organization's problems by defining the desired results, the real results, and the gaps, and by analyzing the causes of these gaps before selecting a range of solutions (rarely is just a single solution enough).

VI: Then the key is identifying the gaps?

MB: If we take a look at the cycle model of what we call performance technology, it starts with performance analysis. The first step is to find out what the goals and the desired results are, then to specify the goals we want to achieve and the current standards. We then need to identify the gaps between these two. We can only justify investing in performance management when the gaps affect both the current and the desired results.

We often say things like "This is the fifth time employees have attended training courses, yet they continue to make the same mistakes." Maybe training is not the solution. Maybe the employees have no way of knowing that they are making mistakes, so they have no way of avoiding them. Or it might occur to them that they are making mistakes, but perhaps they receive no feedback to confirm this. Maybe they are selling services that might have a negative effect in the future, but they are unable to see these consequences. Or the customer didn't understand because of a lack of real-time communication. These are but a few examples of possible causes for employee errors.

In these cases, instead of providing more training, we may need to define a process to enable direct inquiries. That way, when we know the causes of errors made, we will be able to decide what type of intervention is required.

VI: Is e-learning just another tool in what we call performance improvement technology?

MB: Exactly. First of all, there is the diagnosis-detection stage, where we see the performance gaps; second, we have the causes for the gaps; and third, the selection and design of interventions. E-learning is an intervention.

A new accounting or enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, or an enhancement to the selection, can easily be considered interventions. According to the methodology, we can see interventions as different types of tools that we can—or should—combine and use in consistent ways. What we do with one, we don't undo with the other. They must be aligned.

VI: The return on investment (ROI) topic is critical when presenting a new project. In this case, how do we obtain an ROI?

MB: [Human Performance Technology] defines ROI and describes four main groups that constitute it. When we use the methodology to design a project, we have to calculate the ROI. We must compare the cost of the issue with the cost of the solution, and distribute it through the life cycle of the solution.

We might have a fixed period for our ROI. In this case, we must manage the periods in which we expect to see that ROI, and define how we will measure the investment. We must consider economic indicators that will translate into a balance sheet and other indirect factors that will affect it. For example, if we ask "How do we measure ROI in education?" we must consider how difficult it is to measure ROI in education per se. But if you consider the cost of ignorance or the cost of incompetence to perform a specific task, you can infer the consequences.

To illustrate this point, consider a bank that has a program to help cashier managers make cashiers improve their performance. These managers should provide the cashiers with some type of training, but the managers argue that they have no time because they have other tasks to do. Some of these tasks surely consist of answering the cashiers' repetitive questions.

So, how many times a day do cashiers bother their managers with questions? Let's say five times. And how long does it take the manager to respond? At least five minutes. That means five minutes, five times a day—twenty-five minutes per cashier. If we have three cashiers, then that already equates to seventy-five minutes a day, five days a week. That is the cost of not investing in the time to train the cashiers. How do we measure the cost? We must see what the cashier manager's working day costs. We divide the manager's salary by the number of days or hours, then we multiply that number by the time, and we get the cost.

The manager thinks that he has to either schedule a day to teach cashiers how to perform these tasks so that they don't have to constantly ask questions, or use an online help system to improve performance and provide the cashiers with a way to obtain responses to their questions in real time.

When we add up all the costs of failures that can be attributed to this problem with the cashiers, and we compare that to the project cost, we must consider how long it would take us to recover the amount we invested in solving this problem in terms of what would happen with the cost of lost time spent doing rework, solving cashier mistakes, etc., if we eliminated this problem.

The basis of ROI is that in order to know what an investment is, we must have results and use them in a practical way—see how we can translate them into useful information. Human Performance Technology explains different formulas, models—even ways to compare solution A to solution B (for example, e-learning compared to an on-site training course).

[Human Performance Technology] provides tools to build a solid case for ROI, which is made before starting the project, not after. That is, when we decide we will sell the project, the logical question is, "What will the results be?" The answer is not only how much it will cost, but how much we will earn from this.

About the Interviewee

Mariano Bernárdez, PhD, CPT, is an internationally renowned expert in mega planning. He is the principal of the International Institute for Social and Organizational Performance Improvement. Bernárdez has dedicated his professional life to the development of new organizations in emerging markets. He is currently in charge of creating fourteen new organizations in emerging markets that aim to export to the United States, Europe, Japan, China, and Korea. He is president of the Global Network for Performance Improvement and director of the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI). Bernárdez can be reached at

Source: Learning Review Magazine (, Issue number 16, pages 8 to 10.

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