Improving Communication – A Performance Consulting perspective

When last did you get a request for a communication training intervention?

Have you ever given it a thought as to what they mean if they ask : ” Please help us to improve communication?”.

Do they mean:

  • Raising awareness among the managers of the importance of improving communications with the employees?
  • Do they mean the training of skill or will?
  • Do they mean internal communication strategies should not be Uni-directional?
  • Do they mean more activities such as intranets, hotlines, small and large group meetings, scripts for managers, open doors, open e-mail systems,
    face-to-face communication, phonically and conferences, video conferences, and so forth?
  • Or do they mean more information-sharing, persuasion, interpersonal, group, organisational, written, oral, electronic, task or relational communication.

By now it must be certain in your mind that to solve the underlying problems associated with communication, you will have to define what the real cause

This will mean that as a Communication consultant you will need to adopt a Performance Consulting approach. Or as one writer commented :”We need to look at Performance problems systemically, to involve all aspects of the organisation, and then to apply comprehensive solutions to performance

It has long became apparent that one -off intervention do not solve problems. A few years ago I was the Chairman at a Competency based HR
Development conference where the renowned expert on HR Competencies, Pat McLagan used the following analogy to, illustrate the use of a training
intervention in the wrong context: ” If your finger represents a training intervention, and a glass of water represents the organisation, what changes
if you run a training intervention?

She dipped her finger in the water and illustrated that only the finger got wet. The glass of water did not change.” There is virtually no change, if
the system does not change”. And as Organisation Development experts will tell you: “A bad system will always beat a conscientious employee“.

The problem with traditional training is that it often does not sort out the problem, because the problem may be knowledge, system, skill or
environmental related.


  • Up to 80% of newly learned knowledge and skills are not fully applied by those employees on the job
  • Most training approaches focus on learning instead of on the transfer of the newly learned skills onto the job
  • Often lack of skill and knowledge is not the most frequent cause of existing performance problems. It may be work-environment related.
  • Too often training is not the most appropriate solution for a performance related problem.

The Communication consultant therefore has to become more than just a trainer, but rather someone that can contribute to increased performance in
the workplace. After all if improved communication practices do not lead to enhanced performance, then what is the purpose of trying to improve it ?

As communication consultants we have to evolve into PERFORMANCE CONSULTANTS – internal or external consultants whose goals are to help clients (line management) improve performance, and the bottom line and the way the organization is perceived by stakeholders. Consultants who are performance trouble-shooters. Someone who can track down sub performance and performers. Someone who can find out what’s wrong and fix it fast. Not just someone who hide behind their specific discipline’s masks.

However to make this transition, communication practitioners will not only have to undergo a paradigm shift but they will need to acquire new skills,
competencies and techniques. This means that we move beyond only assessing training needs to identifying and addressing the communication performance needs of the people.

It means that we execute performance gap analysis and that we view problems systemically. It means that opposed to only designing and delivering training materials we provide services that assist in changing or improving performance, using such instruments as the design of communication performance models and training interventions .

It means that instead of focusing on learning we focus on performance. BUT MOST OF ALL, IT MEANS HELPING MANAGERS THINK THROUGH PERFORMANCE PROBLEMS AND FIND SOLUTIONS, EVEN IF IT IS NOT TRAINING RELATED.( Especially the communication parts of problems).


A CONSULTANT is anyone who has some influence over an individual, Group or Organisation but has no direct power to make changes or implement programs. You are acting as a consultant when you advise someone who is in a position to make and enforce changes.

The role and function of an internal consultant is thus essentially to help improve individual and organisational performance. In doing this, various
methods may be used. However, all of them will be involved in finding out what the problems and opportunities are, assessing the options and providing
some guidance, and advice and information. This seems a rather simple approach and in some cases it is.

However, when you see the problems and opportunities within the context of the politics of organisational life then the consulting process is a complex
one. It involves talking with many different people, at different levels, with different perceptions, in order to grasp the main facts and feelings
about an issue. It then involves a careful assessment to see what can be done that will make an improvement. Then comes the difficult job of feeding
back the data and assisting clients to implement the necessary interventions.

Thus whether you are an internal or external consultant the consulting elements will stay the same i.e.

  • Understanding client’s needs
  • Gaining relevant information
  • Providing advice, and;
  • Most of all having the interpersonal and organisational skills to influence change

So what are the skills and competencies necessary for successful internal consulting performance consulting ? They include:

Business Knowledge

In essence, Performance consultants are Businesspeople who specialise in human performance rather than just finance, marketing, operations or public
relations. They know the business they are operating in. They can read the annual report and make some meaningful comments, but even more important
they can speak their client’s language.

Specialist Knowledge

If you are a Communications Consultant, you will need to know not just organizational communication as a subject, but also inter-personal and intra-personal communication technologies. Training in Public Relations and related fields is a must.

(For instance, if your organization is preparing an integrated Crisis Management & Crisis Communication plan, would you rather work with a specialist crisis communication consultant such as a PR company or with a Crisis Management Consultant that has experience in not just Crisis Communication, but that also understands organizational and environmental dynamics?)

Knowledge of Human Performance Technology

Human Performance technology is a “systematic approach to analysing, improving, and managing performance in the workplace through the use of
appropriate and varied interventions” ( ASTD ). This technology acknowledges the fact that Human Performance is a function of many influences, including
skill, accountability, rewards and motivation, to name just a few.

These influences are interdependent, it is the combination of them that result in performance.Performance Consultants must possess knowledge of this technology and operate from a systems approach each time a problem or performance challenge is presented to them.

Partnering Skill

This is the ability to forge relationships with various people in the organisation and will include internal networking, influencing skills and the ability to build trust.

Consulting Skill

In any consulting intervention it is very important that the right style be adopted. For instance, in a performance consulting situation the collaborative style is the most effective. It is therefore important that the communication consultant as performance consultant has knowledge of the consulting process and can demonstrate and use these process skills:

  • Contracting for Performance consulting
  • From needs analysis to performance analysis
  • Performance improvement techniques
  • Systems thinking skills
  • How to select and design tools and appropriate interventions
  • Preparation and the delivering of reports on results and/or recommendations of various performance interventions and resources
  • Interpersonal consulting skills
  • How to gain permission and trust
  • Influencing skills
  • Consulting styles and models
  • The politics of consulting
  • How to identify needs proactively and reactively
  • How to design and use performance relationship maps


Is there still a place for training especially from a communication angle? Of course, except now training becomes part of the Communication Consultant’s “bag of tricks”. Any competent doctor will first diagnose, and then only prescribe, and often the prescription may include a variety of items.

So it should be with our profession. We need to make the change to take our rightful place in organisations, practitioners who are not viewed as cost
centres but as key pivots to the business. The business need to improve performance is an opportunity for communication practitioners. The extent to
which they can operate in the performance improvement arena depends on their own competencies and the disposition toward performance in the organisations they serve.

In some companies, training is not connected to performance outcomes: it is a process for delivering knowledge, skill, and information. In other cases,
training is performance-based by intention but not necessarily part of a performance improvement strategy that considers many kinds of interventions.
In companies that are focused on performance, training is one of many possible interventions that might be used to close a performance gap.

To operate effectively in a performance orientated organisation communication consultants will need to develop performance consulting skills.

For more information read the books :Performance Consulting : Moving beyond training by Dana Gaines Robinson as well as The Advice Business – Essential Tools and Models for Management Consulting by Professor Charles Fombrun and D. Nevins. (Disclaimer: I wrote a chapter on Consultancy Marketing in the Advice Business)