Personalizing performance, not learning: lessons from mass customization

Applying principles of mass customization in L&D design and leveraging digital learning transfer technology can greatly accelerate the impact rate of mission-critical training.

Cows at an experimental dairy farm in tiny Hickory Corners, Michigan — a few miles from co-author Robert Brinkerhoff’s home — are more productive, healthier and more content than cows at a traditional dairy farm.

At a typical dairy farm, all the cows eat the same food mix and are milked at the same time, usually twice every day. Is this because that is when cows prefer to eat and be milked and are known to be most productive? No. It is because this is when the dairy farmer is able to get the job done — it’s a lot of labor, requiring several people.

At the Hickory Corners farm, things are very different. Each cow wears a digital-chip “necklace” with an individual unique code. When hungry, she strolls into the barn and into a feeding stall where her chip is read and the feeding chute discharges a blend of grains and other nutrients that is formulated by the feeding machine uniquely for her, the diet blend that has been proven to optimize her milk production. When she feels the urge to be milked, she checks into a milking stall where a robotic milker taps her udder. Her chip enables a computer to record her unique milk production and analyzes its volume and nutrient make-up. The computer tracks her production over time, making continuous adjustments to her diet to optimize her milk quality and production rate. The single dairy farmer — needing no labor from assistants — has only to keep the automated feeding, milking and manure-removal machinery humming along smoothly.

Economies of scale are still employed in the purchase and storage of the feed for the cows, and overall milk production is aggregated for market distribution. But the specific feed mixture and the milking schedule is individualized at the point of feeding and milking, tailoring diet and schedule to each particular cow.

This dairy farm is an example of mass customization, a manufacturing technique that combines the flexibility and personalization of custom-made products with the low unit costs associated with mass production, a concept attributed to visionary business thinker Stan Davis in “Future Perfect.”

The value premise of mission-critical learning and development — to drive execution of a new strategy — is that it will result in new and improved workplace behaviors. Research shows that this sort of mission-critical training has a discouragingly low rate of impact — rarely greater than 50 percent or so, and often much lower. But applying principles of mass customization in L&D design and leveraging digital learning transfer technology can accelerate this impact rate to 80 percent or more.

Consider for a moment the benefits from the application of mass-customization principles by the L&D function at Builders First Source Inc., the largest supplier of residential and commercial building products and prefabricated construction components in the United States.

“We finally figured out how to get the right kind of learning distributed to our diverse and distributed sales force, leveraging technology to get this done cost-effectively and on a national scale,” says John Foley, executive vice president of HR at BFS. “Focusing on personalized coaching provided by our busy sales managers using microlearning, e-modules and a virtual role practice platform, we’ve seen wonderful results. We exceeded our sales and margin targets in 2019 and foresee doing the same in 2020. We also think it’s reduced our turnover and helped us onboard new hires more quickly. Our sales managers always felt too busy with this kind of learning and coaching support — now they are getting on board when they see the results they can get.”

Mass customization: a closer look

Think for a minute about how mass customization was employed in the milk production process in Hickory Corners, and how those process elements align metaphorically with elements in a typical technology-supported training program: The training program is for people, not cows; the “feed” is the training elements meant to grow knowledge and skills; the “feeding stall” is the digital learning platform; the training is all about producing improved performance, not milk.

A vital note to consider in this metaphor is the technology interface between Bessie, an individual cow, and the particular mix of food and nutrients she is fed. This mixture is not determined by Bessie’s taste preferences; she does not look over a menu of options and then choose what she feels like eating that day. Nor does it track her preferences and adjust her diet according to what the machine thinks she might like today. Instead, her diet blend is driven by her performance improvement needs — her milk production. Her individual production is tracked and analyzed continuously, and her food blend is adjusted, from one feeding to the next, to optimize her performance. The same goes for every one of Bessie’s peer cows on the farm, each getting a unique, performance-driven dietary blend.

And it is here where our suggestion for performance-focused mass production application departs from what we see as current practice in the L&D field. We see that L&D personalization technology is relatively well developed and readily available to provide learners myriad choices of content and modalities (video, audio, readings, etc.). Content providers use proprietary algorithms to “feed” content to learners according to their preferences, access history and choices. But where we see the greatest need for application of mass customization is in the personalization of performance, not just learning — managing the performance support “diet” of individual performers to help them change, improve and sustain the work behavior results needed to achieve their organization’s goals.

Mass-customization principles applied in performance improvement support tools and methods

We advocate an approach called adaptive customization that moves the point of personalization in the production and supply process as close as possible to the end user, as exemplified by the dairy.

Levi’s likewise exemplifies this approach, producing mass quantities of plain jean “blanks” shipped to their retail outlets. There, a customer uses a computer program to create a unique design of wear spots, color streaks and tears. The computer then guides a laser machine in the back of the store that treats the denim blank to produce exactly the jeans the customer designed. Forty minutes later, the customer walks out in the new, unique pair of jeans.

It is this conceptualization of mass customization that we feel offers the greatest yield for milking performance gains from learning investments (dairy pun intended).

The means by which learning is transferred into improved workplace performance can be conceived as a process, as shown in simplified structure in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Learning-to-performance process

Imagine, for example, a corporation with a new strategy to increase customer loyalty and engagement. Imagine further that executing this strategy will require employees in all customer-facing operations to employ greater levels of empathy and understanding of customer expectations and needs. Finally, imagine that the L&D function has been charged with helping these employees master improved empathic listening skills, and has designed and developed a learning journey approach that will extend over several months.

The process will need to begin with building some foundational knowledge: What constitutes customer loyalty; how do listening skills further this goal; what are empathic listening skills; what does worthy empathic listening performance look like in action; what are some examples of good and not-so-good behaviors? Over time, the knowledge-building process will turn to practice, beginning with simple sub-skills, such as being able to discern good from bad examples, then proceeding to trying out sub-skills in sheltered, low-risk settings with ample feedback. These practice interventions then become more challenging, trying out more complex role plays, with practice at giving, and acting on, feedback.

At some point, the practice will need to be migrated into the actual workplace. This is also the point at which, according to our research, the process begins to falter and the low-impact prediction rears its ugly head: Resistance builds, obstacles are encountered that can force workplace behavior to revert to how it was before, skill attenuation sets in, learning journey participants begin to drop out. If you look, like we have, at dozens of learning journey designs, you find this: Almost all of the journey is dedicated to knowledge production, and very little is dedicated to performance production. Mass production works well early in the process — workshops, e-learning modules, videos and so forth. But customized personalization is required to turn all that knowledge into improved performance, unique to each person’s particular job-place capabilities and context.

Why personalization is increasingly vital for performance improvement

Training achieves impact, we have already noted, when new learning – in our example, empathic listening skills — get deployed effectively and consistently in workplace behavior. But with these sorts of soft skills (also known as generalizable skills), a cleverly worded aphorism rings true: The strength of a soft skill is that it can be used in many, many ways. The weakness of a soft skill is that it can be used in many, many ways.

If the use of the new empathic listening skills is going to help achieve the organization’s strategy, each and every person is going to need to figure out: Where in my job would using this skill make the greatest contribution to customer loyalty and engagement?” In Figure 1, we use the term “moments that matter” (or MtM for short) to refer to these parts of jobs that have the greatest leverage; the part of a job that would, if the skill was used effectively, make the greatest difference to the new strategic goal. Obviously, MtMs vary and differ among job roles. An attorney in the legal department might use listening skills in one way, while a sales representative would use them in another. But even within the same role, MtMs differ between role incumbents in the same type of job. I might find in my sales role that I need to be empathic in listening to and clarifying objections, while you in your sales role might already be quite good at that, but have a need to use those skills in closing a sale. MtMs also differ according to the business context of organization sub-units. Your unit might be most charged with retaining current customers while my unit is working to cultivate new clients.

These differences in job roles, role-incumbent strengths and weaknesses, organizational unit objectives, and a constantly changing marketplace context demand a high degree of personalization. Core principles and foundational knowledge can be mass produced to the greatest extent possible, leveraging economies of scale. But as the process migrates into skill development and job-place practice, we find the greatest need for L&D personalization techniques and tools. Here are some of the methods we provide to training participants, their managers and their managers’ managers to help them personalize individual performance:

  • Identify and commit to improving effectiveness in the MtMs that are most vital.
  • Analyze and identify individual needs for improvement related to those MtMs.
  • Provide checklists and other feedback tools for individualized coaching sessions.
  • Guide participants to exemplars and performance support resources that fit their unique demands.
  • Help individuals with similar needs link to and learn from others.

Do these methods make a difference? Steve Mahaley, co-founder and learning designer at Red Fern, previously of Duke Corporate Education, says, “It has long been a source of great frustration that program designs stopped at the doorway of the classroom. There was little, if any, attention paid to helping participants identify how to translate concepts into meaningful action in their context. In our recent work with diversity, equity and inclusion we’ve implemented the idea of MtMs and provide a menu of actions for individuals to take based on role and particular needs. I have been amazed by the participant testimonials with stories of productively confronting their own biases, changing their daily behaviors and strengthening the performance culture of their organizations.”

Emerging learning journey technologies promise to solve many of the problems in milking sustained performance improvement from L&D investments — but not without thoughtful and innovative design, shaped by a performance improvement paradigm, and personalization shaped by creatively applying principles of adaptive mass customization.