Robert Barrett, CPCU, CLU, ChFC, director of performance improvement for Wausau Insurance Companies, Wausau, Wis., is responsible for training and education for all of Wausau's sales operations. He coordinates his programs with 13 sales directors in the field. The training--in both the insurance industry and in sales techniques--covers new employees as well as continuing education for current staff. Training is delivered at the home office, in field locations, and through self-study programs.

About a year ago Barrett's title changed from director of education and administration to director of performance improvement.

ICP: How did the new title come about?

Barrett: At my request. I made the recommendation to the senior vice president of sales and the two vice presidents [for sales and marketing] under him.

I wanted to change the focus of what we're doing. Performance improvement is a new area, even among training professionals, yet there is a move toward improving performance as opposed to simply training and education.

ICP: What does "performance improvement" mean?

Barrett: Performance improvement involves the entire picture of what is necessary to improve a person's performance. Education implies the giving out of facts, information, and background that a person needs. Training provides the skills development to use that education.

Performance improvement goes beyond to look at the internal and external issues that make a person successful. Some of those are: the workplace environment, tools of the trade, equipment and office space, proper selection and hiring, motivation, and compensation programs. It includes an assessment of peoples' needs.

ICP: Describe a new training program that has come out of this change in your title and focus.

Barrett: We instituted a program of core competencies, starting first with the support staff in the field. The program involved the development of a set of core skills, knowledge, and attitudes--what we think a person should have and be. From that we developed an assessment instrument which was sent to individuals.

We had them complete a self-assessment dealing with how they felt they matched the core competencies, and then asked their managers to assess them. Following that, we did an analysis of any gaps between the individual's own assessment and that of his or her manager. We then asked the managers to bring their people up to where they should be.

The next group I'm working with in this program is our marketers in the field. Following that the program will address the direct sales staff. Another major project will be to work with our 13 sales directors on enhancing their coaching and hiring skills.

ICP: Does the new designation broaden the scope of your position?

Barrett: Yes. There is a consulting aspect to performance improvement [that is usually not part of a trainer's job].

For example, I can get involved in recommending salary bands, writing job descriptions for various positions and assigning those positions to pay bands, hiring, and recommending proper equipment and technology so that we can deliver what we need to deliver in the most effective way.

Performance improvement also deals with incentive programs, which relate to staff motivation. With performance improvement you are a consultant in other areas as well--such as sales and marketing--whose staff are looking for new ideas. In "education and training" I would never have gotten into a lot of this.

ICP: What's behind the performance improvement trend?

Barrett: Many people are going back to school to get master's degrees, take specialized courses, or get professional designations. We encourage that here at Wausau. As people start to think in terms of continuous learning, they become learner-centered instead of teacher-centered. That shift includes a focus on performance improvement. The position of performance improvement is concerned with what we can do to help people do their jobs better.

ICP: Does the performance improvement concept affect the delivery of training?

Barrett: A goal of performance improvement is to find more efficient and effective ways of delivering training--to look at reducing the time people spend in classrooms. One reason we still do home-office training at Wausau is to introduce staff to the company. But I tend more toward distance learning. We're now using new technology like intranet and CD-ROM training as well.

ICP: So will a shift toward performance improvement mean the end of traditional training and trainers?

Barrett: We won't ever get completely away from classroom training. Facts can be delivered electronically but there are some things you must practice. You can't teach selling skills, for example, unless you practice. So you need a classroom. And people learn in different ways and at different levels. There has to be a balance.

There will also be people who won't give up the training title. We'll always need people to design courses and to do the classroom training. A department may be called performance improvement but within it there will always be trainers. *