We talk a lot about performance. We know that training is just one of many solutions to performance problems. We suggest that training departments should become performance improvement departments. We get it.

Or do we? Too often, there’s more talk about performance than action. Too often, we offer training solutions (including eLearning) for problems that we know are not training related. We know better, but for reasons that are often, but not always, out of our control, we revert to what’s comfortable and what’s expected.

So let’s take a step back and look again at key performance problems, and how to decide whether or not training is the proper response. Here are fourteen reasons (Table 1) why people don’t perform; fourteen reasons that likely cover 99% of all performance situations you might face. How many of them can training really solve? How many require other considerations and approaches instead of, or in addition to training?

Table 1. Fourteen reasons why people don’t perform, and what you might be able to do about it.



What to Consider, Instead of or in Conjunction with Training

  1. They (employees, workers, team members, etc.) don’t know how to perform.

OK, this is a learning opportunity, and training is certainly one important way to enable learning. You also may add informational, collaborative, and experiential/simulation components to your learning solution, in addition to an instructional component.

  1. They don’t know how well to perform.
  2. They think they are already performing.

These two are standards issues. Some people believe that what they are doing – and the quality level with which they are doing it – is what is expected. Communicating clear expectations about the level and quality of the performance may be all that’s needed. Try this first, before you train. And if you have no performance standards, forget training until you do, because without standards, how do you know what your training goals should be?

  1. They don’t know they should perform.

Here, a good communications strategy, from the organization down to immediate supervisors, can be much more helpful, and efficient, than training. Sometimes people are skilled at a job or task but don’t perform simply because they didn’t know they should.

  1. They don’t know why they should perform.
  2. They don’t believe in it, or don’t think it will work.
  3. They have too much invested in the status quo.

Here, you are looking to create commitment. It’s a change-management challenge rather than a training challenge. You can train people to do something different or new, but if they are not convinced that it’s the right way to go, it will feel like you are constantly pushing a rock uphill. Getting buy-in first will make any training you do a lot more effective, and easier.

  1. They are too busy.

Priorities and time management are the culprits here. If people have no time to do something, or it’s too low on their task list, they won’t do it in spite of any training you do. Often, freeing up the performer’s time is all that’s needed.

  1. They are not rewarded for the right performance.
  2. They are punished for the right performance.
  3. There are no (or weak) consequences for doing it wrong, or not at all.

Here, the focus should be in incentives. If doing something new or different is perceived to be more painful, less appreciated, or simply more of a hassle than doing it the way it was always done in the past, you’re going nowhere. We often find a bad organizational culture will defeat the best-intended training.

  1. They don’t have the financial, technical, workplace, or staff resources to perform.

Training people to do something and then denying them the resources to do it is all too common. Sometimes smart people can overcome meager or non-existent resources, but don’t bet on it. Give people the tools and resources, including performance support, they need to perform to a standard, and you may find additional training unnecessary.

  1. They don’t have the capacity to perform.

After trying everything, sometimes it’s just a mismatch between the job and capability. This is not a question of disability, as many disabled workers are fine performers. It is an issue of competence, and it leads to a reasonable conclusion that the person, even after training, will never perform to standard. Replacing the worker may be the only alternative.

  1. The job or task is poorly designed, or impossible.

It’s not likely that you can train someone to do the impossible, or to be successful in a process or task so convoluted and poorly designed as to make even experts throw their hands up in frustration. Job design (or redesign), not training people on “work-arounds,” will go a long way to improving performance.


Thinking about solutions other than training is not a dig on the training process or the importance of learning in an organization. But it is a call for us to think twice before we offer up the same solution for every performance challenge we face. Focusing first on performance rather than training improves the prospects for solving problems with the most efficient and effective solution, or combination of solutions (where training may be a legitimate part). And, it gets us out of the training center and into the business, working with a lot of other groups in the organization to make a comprehensive solution possible.

In a classic case of less is more, being judicious with training and embracing a more comprehensive set of performance solutions actually increases the efficacy of the training function. We are much more likely to use training only when it’s appropriate to do so, and we are more likely to reinforce learning with other performance strategies that can be as powerful and cost-effective – or more so – as anything we do in a course.