Applying Performance Improvement Models to Develop a Whole-Organization Solution to a Human Performance Problem

My first government contracting job as a training specialist/instructional designer after separating from the USAF in 2007 was at a “three letter agency” in the metro DC area. I was hired to develop instructor-led training and deliver it to more than 50 geographically separated offices across the U.S. (within a year of being brought on to the job). Concurrently, I was working with their training department as they developed an online component of the training. In the end, I developed the instructor-led training and delivered it (along with one other trainer, who I trained to be a trainer) across the country, and the agency hired me as an employee to manage the program outright (policy development, training, communications, self-inspection, and interagency coordination).

This project is a great example of training being just a small piece of the iceberg. Let’s examine it.

The Organizational Problem

The agency I was working for needed to ensure everyone was identifying information that required protection as national security information (essentially classified information) and marking and protecting it in accordance with its sensitivity.

The organizational goal was to minimize security incidents caused by mis-marked and/or mishandled national security information.

The policy directing this program at the time was the 2003 Executive Order 12958, which was replaced by President Obama with Executive Order 13526 in 2009.

The Solutions

I didn’t realize it at the time (because I hadn’t been formally introduced to it), but I analyzed the problem more systemically than just performing a training needs analysis. Looking back on this project, I can easily see how my analysis of the problem and intervention selection followed the ISPI Performance Improvement Model.


I can also see how some of the issues I identified fall within categories defined in Gilbert’s Behavior Engineering Model.


Gilbert’s Behavior Engineering Model from Deb Wagner’s website


Training was the most obvious solution. It was what I was hired to do and, yes, there was a knowledge and skill gap with no training available to close it (BEM Section 4 – Knowledge). I developed a 2.5 hour instructor-led course that introduced people to the concepts behind classifying and marking national security information and required them to use their skills in a variety of scenarios. The course culminated with a Jeopardy!-like game to engage the learners in topics pertaining to handling and protecting the information.

Not only did I design and implement this course across the country over the course of the first year (with another trainer), I also adapted it to be a longer, 3-hour, version for intelligence analysts, which was presented during their initial skills training and a shorter, 1-hour version for new employees who wouldn’t need as in-depth of an understanding (because they didn’t all deal with classified information as much as the intelligence analysts did). I had also developed a more in-depth course for reports officers who reviewed and approved all the analysts’ reports to answer their requirements.

I did liaise with the developers in the training division to provide content for the online version (in the form of storyboards), but the online course was not deployed while I worked at this agency.

Organizational Communication

Training was an obvious solution, but it wasn’t the only solution, because the problem was bigger than just a knowledge/skill gap. (Side note: Training is usually never an inexpensive solution and doesn’t have as much of an impact as solutions developed in the Environment row of the Behavior Engineering Model).

The biggest issue with the classification program at this agency was that there was no one managing it. There was no clear communication around the program. No one knew who to call if they had questions or issues. These issues lie in the Data and Instruments sections of the Behavior Engineering Model.

I solved these issues by

  • getting out there and talking to people so people knew who I was and what the program was (and so I could listen to them and learn about their questions and issues with the program), and
  • setting up an internal SharePoint site as an information repository and internet presence for easy access.

After my first year in this position, the agency hired me on as an employee to manage the program outright (which I had been doing as a contractor anyway, in the absence of a program manager), which leads to the next solution that I implemented…

Organizational Design and Development

When I began work on the program, there was no one in our division managing the program, so the few people who did call with questions would call a number that went straight to voice mail or get someone who wasn’t willing or able to make a decision/give good advice on the caller’s issue or question.

As I “got out there and talked to/listened to people,” I learned that there were many entities involved in the process of classifying and protecting national security information. The two biggest stakeholders were:

  • The branch of the agency that was responsible for all of the classified intelligence efforts. Our agency’s primary original classification authority (as per the Executive Order) was located in that branch. That branch was also responsible for the intelligence analysts who wrote the intelligence reports.
  • The division responsible for security, including physical, information, personnel, etc. – across the agency. When I began the program, it was assumed that the security officers located in the different offices across the country were to be the classification experts and enforce the classification marking and handling rules specified in the Executive Order. It was assumed that these security officers were to be the site-level classified information marking and handling experts.

Three things were obvious to me as a result of this organizational environment (and so we implemented these changes to the organizational structure, which fall under Environmental Analysis: Workplace/Organization and Work/Processes of the ISPI model):

  1. After the first year, I led the program from soup to nuts (policy development, training, communications, self-inspection, and interagency coordination) and aligned the program’s goals with the organization’s goals (the agency used a dashboard for strategy implementation and monitoring). The scope of the Executive Order was for more than just identifying and marking classified national security information, so my program covered the marking and handling/protection of national security information. This resulted in a name change for our unit and inclusion of the handling/protecting policies and processes in our program.
  2. Our unit became known as the authoritative voice and link between security and intelligence. I helped the others in my unit develop a more authoritative voice (and not be afraid to say “I don’t know, but I’ll find out!”). Prior to establishing ourselves as the authority on the topic, the folks in the unit were afraid to provide definitive answers and, if there were no definitive answers, would just leave the questions hanging in the air. In order to be the authoritative voice, we wrote the policies on the topic and developed strong relationships with the intelligence folks and the security folks in our agency and developed the policy with their input and advice. We also engaged in interagency meetings on behalf of our division chief (and met with some big successes for our agency in those meetings!).
  3. Instead of the onus being on the security officers to be the on-site experts in identifying and marking classified information, the local intelligence analysts became the on-site experts.

Change Management

Change management makes a nice box around the ISPI performance improvement model, because it should happen throughout the performance improvement analysis, selection, design, implementation, and evaluation processes. The implementation of this program and the training associated with it required a healthy dose of change management. The implementation of the new Executive Order in 2009 required change management skills, as well. Thankfully, by then, we had established a robust program and developed a better information and communication infrastructure, which made communicating and implementing the changes easier.

Visiting all the offices across the country and engaging with the different moving parts involved with this program (the intelligence folks, security folks, training folks, etc.) gave me an understanding of who the adopters were, what their concerns were, and how the change would affect the organization as a whole. This understanding helped me facilitate the changes required to make this program a success.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s