Human Performance Technology:

The emergence of a new field

Having borrowed principles from behavioral and humanistic psychology, many of the key thinkers in human performance technology (HPT) were involved in the early days of instructional design, looking to extend principles beyond the classroom and into areas such as business operations and management, prison rehab, or the Job Corps.

Geary Rummler, a pioneer in HPT, frames its evolution in 2 distinct phases:

  1. foundational development (1950s–1960s)
  2. dissemination and application (1970s–present)
man working at laptop in nature

Timeline: human performance technology, 1930s to present


Early influences
  • Skinner’s behaviorist theories emphasize learning through conditioning, wherein behaviors are shaped by positive or negative reinforcement and observable changes in behavior.
  • Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs proposes that human motivation is driven by the fulfillment of a series of needs from basic physiological requirements to self-actualization.


Foundational development 
  • Rummler and Dale Brethower, a student of Skinner, teach workshops to managers and HR professionals, emphasizing that improving performance could involve more than training.
  • Gilbert’s "Journal of Mathetics," derived from Skinner’s principles, leads to the formation of the National Society for Programmed Instruction (NSPI), which later became the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI).
  • Early evolution of Rummler’s Human Performance System model, which seeks to improve organizational performance by analyzing and optimizing the interactions between people, processes, and environments.
  • Workshops evolve to include concepts of the organization as a system and early frameworks for performance improvement.


Dissemination and application
  • Human performance technology takes shape as key concepts are shared with the public via publications, presentations, and workshops.
  • Mager’s Analyzing Performance Problems (1970) emphasizes the importance of identifying barriers and causes of performance gaps.
  • Major corporations, now viewing HPT as an organizational investment, request consulting and performance analyses; notably, recommendations do not include training.
  • Harless establishes Front-End Analysis as a way of identifying performance gaps and determining the root causes of performance problems before designing interventions.
  • Gilbert’s Behavior Engineering Model proposes six categories of variables that affect human performance.
  • Gilbert’s Human Competence: Engineering Worthy Performance (1978) presents a framework for addressing the interplay of environmental factors, individual behaviors, and performance outcomes.


Technology, cognitive psychology, and clearer standards
  • Rapid advancements in technology and research in cognitive psychology positively influence the development of HPT.
  • Rummler works with major corporations like Motorola, teaching his three levels of performance (organization, process, and job/performer).
  • The International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) is established.
    The ISPI publishes “The Ten Standards for Human Performance Technology" toward a consistent framework for the field.
  • Rummler and Brache’s Improving Performance: How to Manage the White Space in the Organization Chart (1990) presents a more strategic approach with key variables that affect performance.


The internet age and a focus on value
  • Emphasis in the workplace shifts to a return on investment in learning and performance.
  • HPT consultants become more valuable in the workplace, reflected in an increase in median salaries.
  • Data analytics provide new tools for decision making. 

Learn more about HPT


Human performance technology  helps people be more effective and successful in the workplace.

Frameworks and Thinkers

Understand the big ideas in human performance technology and its key theorists.


Learn specific ways human performance technology can improve your school operations.