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Think about It

What I would have all human performance technologists know

  Fred Nickols 2012


This short piece was written in response to a request from the editor of the Performance & Instruction Journal.  Several of the more vocal members of ISPI (then NSPI) were asked to say a few words about the truly important matters we would have all human performance specialists know.  This is what I wrote (with some typos corrected).  It appeared in the September 1985 issue of Performance & Instruction Journal.  That was long before there was any widespread interest in knowledge management.  Yet, this brief piece clearly presages the current interest in knowledge management and, in particular, the interest in capturing tacit knowledge.


What I would have all human performance specialists know - and understand - are the distinctions made by Drucker (1973) among work, worker and working.   I have commented on these earlier (Nickols, 1983) but they bear repeating.   These distinctions are essentially those we in NSPI make among performance, performer and performing (i.e., behaving).

The importance of these distinctions stems from what has been called "the shift to knowledge work" (Drucker, 1968, 1973) and to what has also been termed "postindustrial society" (Bell, 1976).  Where once working--the activity of the worker - consisted primarily of observable behavior, it now consists primarily of unobservable mental activity.  The remaining visible behavior is mainly verbal.  Consequently, concepts such as thought, thinking, mind and intelligence are renewed centers of interest.  Research aimed at unlocking the mysteries of the brain proceeds at a feverish pace.

The practical, performance-oriented interest in such concepts is no doubt one of furthering the legitimate aim of managerial control over work.  The practical, politically-oriented interest is perhaps one of furthering the questionable end of control over the worker.  The exercise of control is complicated by the fact that working is now a covert activity. How does one exercise control over that which can't be seen?

There are those who argue that control is based on feedback, with feedback defined as "information about actual conditions which, when compared with information about desired conditions, produces an error signal leading to corrective action.  The classic example is the way a thermometer in a thermostat mechanism provides information about the actual room temperature relative to the temperature setting, enabling the controller to turn on or off the air conditioning or heat, as the case may be.

Although feedback is an important element in control systems, it is not the only element.  Another critical element is the reference condition - the specified required condition (e.g., the room temperature one desires).  The reference condition acts as a standard and control, as Peter Drucker (1973) so sagely observed, is always against some standard.  In short, feedback is only part of a system for getting what you want; reference conditions specify that something you want.

The practice of human performance technology, originating as it did in the waning days of industrial civilization, owes a great deal of whatever success it has enjoyed to its focus on feedback, not reference conditions.  Now, however, it must focus on reference conditions as well.  Here's why.

Given that the reference conditions for knowledge workers are perhaps best conceived of as mental constructs (e.g., standards, criteria and, most especially, values), the path to effective control of work (i.e., performance) seems clear enough: it must wend its way through the ability to influence the worker's mindset regarding the work itself, particularly the worker's reference conditions.  Along this path lies a grave danger.

The danger is to certain other "mental constructs" (e.g., liberty, freedom, privacy and justice).  If we succeed in developing new technologies for controlling what I call "mind work," then we cannot help but create technologies that can be put to other uses as well.

In summary, despite Peter Drucker's admonition that control must focus on the work, not the worker, my guess is that, after thousands of years of operating with a control mentality in which the means of controlling the work was one of controlling the worker, and despite the fact that we have entered an era in which "work is done in the head where it can't be seen" (Zand, 1981), no small effort will be devoted to bringing the covert activities of workers under external control.

So much for what I would have you all know.  Now, what would I have you do with it?  That's simple enough: Think about it.



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