Learning vs. Performance - Training and Development

Now we must answer this question: Is performance "bad" and learning"good?" Since 1995, there has been an intense debate in U.S. research literature around the "learning" versus the "performance"paradigms of HRD. That debate has often positioned performance as inherently bad.

Underlying these core beliefs and the continuing debate are certain assumptions that are not clearly articulated. Let's define certain perspectives of performance and learning that seem to be embedded in the learning vs. performance debate. Learning and education have been the subject of philosophical work dating back to ancient times. Many of the early works on adult education were philosophical statements about the purposes of adult learning. Thus, education and learning have grown as disciplines with strong philosophical roots, traditions, and explications.

Performance,on the other hand, has largely been a practice-based phenomenon with little philosophical consideration. Indeed, it is difficult to even think of philosophical sources on performance.

Performance :

Three basic views of performance pervade our thinking:

Performance As a Natural Outcome of Human Activity. In this view, performance is seen as natural part of human existence. Human beings are seen as engaging in wide varieties of purposeful activities with performance as a natural outcome. Furthermore, the accomplishment of certain outcomes in these purposeful activities is a basic human need. That is, few people are content to go through life without engaging in purposeful activities during which they achieve desired outcomes. Said differently, few people are content if they are not performing.
Many of these activities occur in work settings, where we traditionally think performance belongs; but they may also occur in leisure settings. For example, a person may play softball for leisure but also be quite interested in winning games. Or a person might be heavily involved in church activities such as membership drives or outreach programs and exert great effort to make them successful. In both of these examples, performance is a desired aspect of freely chosen behavior.

This view embraces performance as a valued part of human existence. Thus, for HRD orT&D to embrace performance it must also embrace the enhancement of human existence. This is the perspective that performance-based HRD advocates, though it has rarely been articulated as such. Performance based HRD does not see conflict between advancing performance and enhancing human potential. Rather,they are seen as perfectly complementary.

Performance As Necessary for Economic Activity. This perspective of performance is a more utilitarian view whereby performance is an instrumental activity that enhances individuals and society because it supports economic gain. More value-neutral than other perspectives, this view sees performance as neither good nor bad inherently, but rather as a means to other ends. It is largely a work-based view of performance. Performance is seen as necessary for individuals to earn livelihoods and be productive members of society. Performance at the individual level leads to enhanced work and careers; performance at the organization level leads to stronger economic entities capable of providing good jobs. Performance-based HRD originated from this perspective as it attempted to link learning to individual and organizational performance outcomes to enhance the utility of learning. Although this objective is worthy by itself, it lacks the intrinsic"goodness" of the first perspective. As the performance paradigm has matured, it has evolved into the first perspective.

Performance As an Instrument of Organizational Oppression. From this perspective, organizations see performance as a means of control and dehumanization. Through performance,organizations coerce and demand behaviors from individuals in return for compensation. Performance is viewed as threatening to humans and potentially abusive. As such, it is largely a necessary evil that denies human potential.

The underlying presumption of this perspective is that performance is antithetical to human potential. It seems to be most closely aligned with critical theorists who wish human resource development to challenge organizational power structures that seek to control performance outcomes.

Learning :

As stated earlier, education and learning have undergone extensive philosophical discussion.For purposes of this discussion, we will look at three analogous views.

Learning As a Humanistic Endeavor. The primary purpose of learning is seen as enhancing human potential from this perspective. Most closely aligned with humanistic psychology and existentialist philosophy, humans are seen as growing, developing entities. Learning is seen as a key element in helping individuals become more self-actualized and is inherently good for the person.

Most scholars of human resource development view learning from this perspective. They believe deeply in the power of learning to enhance human potential. It is important to note that performance-based HRD also sees learning in this way. Learning and performance are seen not as antithetical but as complementary. Learning As a Value-Neutral Transfer of Information. Learning in this view has instrumental value in that it transfers information that individuals need and desire. Learning is seen as a means to solve the problems of everyday living. Instructional designers and many organizational trainers approach learning from this perspective in that their primary task is to transfer information effectively. A large part of training practice is grounded in this perspective, which sees learning as largely value-neutral, but instrumental.

Learning As a Tool for Social Oppression. That learning can also be a tool for oppression outside of organizational settings is largely overlooked by HRD scholars in the United States. For example, communism uses learning to control people; cults use learning to brainwash people; some religions use learning to restrict the world views of people; and education has used learning to distort history by eliminating black and female perspectives. Thus, learning can also be a tool for oppression and control.

Key Conclusions Regarding Performance/Learning

Several key conclusions can be drawn from the above discussion:

  1. Neither learning nor performance is inherently good or bad. Both can be instruments of oppression or means to elevate human potential.
  2. Learning and performance may simultaneously be good and supportive of human potential and need not be antithetical.
  3. Debates about performance reflect diverse perspectives about performance. Specifically,critics of performance-based HRD incorrectly portray learning as inherently"good" and performance as inherently "bad." It is equally possible for performance to be "good" and learning to be"bad."
  4. Finally, performance-based HRD adopts the perspective that both learning and performance approaches are inherently good for the individual because both are natural.

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