Human Competence: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: February 2nd, 2012 by bobmorris

Human Competence:  Engineering Worthy Performance
Thomas F. Gilbert
Crown Business (2007)

How and why the behavior engineering model “is really an outline of a performance troubleshooting sequence”

Note: The comments that follow discuss the “Tribute Edition” (2007) of a book first published in 1996, after its author’s death. It is now widely viewed as a “classic” and should be.

Disclaimer: Although I re-read this book before beginning to compose this review, I do not claim to understand all of the material that Gilbert shares. I am by no means an expert, nor even a serious student of human engineering and performance technology, viewed as separate but related sciences.

As his brief bio provided by Amazon points out, Thomas F. Gilbert (1927–1995) was a psychologist often considered the founder of the field of performance technology, also known as Human Performance Technology (HPT). Gilbert himself coined and used the term “Performance Engineering.” He applied his understanding of behavioral psychology to efforts to improve human performance at work and in school. He is best known for this book, Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance. Gilbert devised HPT when he realized that formal learning programs often only brought about a change in knowledge, not a change in behavior. (Years later, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton characterized this as “The Knowing-Doing Gap.”) Gilbert asserted that other techniques were needed to bring about a lasting change in behavior. He spent a year on a post-doctoral sabbatical working with the behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner at Harvard University and then with Ogden R. Lindsley in Lindsley’s laboratory at Metropolitan State Hospital in Waltham, MA. In brief, that is his background

The primary focus in Human Competence is on the behavior engineering model to which I refer in the title of this review, a model that — Gilbert suggests, on Pages 91 and 93 — “is really an outline of a performance troubleshooting sequence…merely a way to organize empirical data” That is, as he explains, “The system this book describes is based on three theorems summarizing my major assumptions about the nature of human competence [as opposed to human performance: ‘we often confuse behavior with performance. And that is the main problem of investigating human competence.’]. I call them Leisurely Theorems using leisure as a synonym for human capital, which is the product of time and opportunity.”

With meticulous care and uncommon clarity, Gilbert addresses business subjects, areas, and issues such as these:

o  The nature and extent of “the great culture of behavior”
o  And of its subcults (work, knowledge, and motivation)
o  Worthy competence
o  Measuring human competence
o  The “performance matrix”
o Troubleshooting performance

Note: Gilbert observes that the performance matrix and the behavior engineering model are simplifications of the ways in which we view performance.” He discusses all this in Chapters Four and Five which comprise Part Two, ”Models of Performance Analysis.

o  The correlations between information and competence
o  Knowledge policy at work (Chapter Seven) and at school (Chapter Eight)
o  Knowledge policies, strategies, and tactics

Note: Gilbert asserts, “Nowhere are the separate issues of policy, strategy, and tactics more readily confused than in education and training.”  Table 9-1 (on Page 254) does much to clarify several key issues of education  and training insofar as policy, strategy, and tactics are concerned.

o  Motivation and human capital
o Performance engineering in perspective (e.g. differentiating the behavioral and physical worlds)

Readers will appreciate Gilbert’s provision of “An Application of Performance Engineering” as an Appendix. It is in the form of a case study of “Savory Snacks” during which Gilbert rigorously examines Policy Level Analysis (consolidated in Table A-3 on Page 359) and Strategy Level Analysis (Table A-6, Page 367). He includes a Schematic Knowledge Map (Table A-7, Page 368).

I am grateful, deeply grateful to Thomas Gilbert for all that I have learned from him about human engineering and performance technology, in general, and about his system for studying, measuring, and engineering human competence, in particular. He calls his system “teleonomics,” combining the Greek words “teleos” (the ends or objectives) and “nomos” (the laws). Whatever he calls it, the system proposed certainly would be a significant improvement over the haphazard, insufficient, and/or obsolete systems that many organizations now use…if indeed they use any system at all.


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