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In Memoriam: Joe Harless

by Bill Brandon

October 16, 2012

News

by Bill Brandon

October 16, 2012

“He will live forever with me for the decades of lessons I learned annually from his example: of always being willing to invite others into the conversation, the gathering, for serious talk about performance improvement, and for fun. And I’m sure that’s the way he will live in the minds of hundreds of others. Generously sharing with others. Because that’s the way Joe was.” — Guy Wallace

Joe Harless passed away on October 4, 2012. Joe was tremendously respected by many in the human performance technology field, from the thought leaders to those of us in the trenches. His LinkedIn profile says he was an “independent think tanks professional.” He was exactly that, and much more.

Harless had a huge influence on the practice of performance analysis and support, instructional design, and consulting for over 30 years. Much of what we do in these fields today came from or was heavily influenced by Joe and the members of the Harless Performance Guild that he founded. Many experts attribute the origins of the ADDIE model to Joe Harless; long before that acronym appeared, he proposed a performance technology process model consisting of five elements: analysis, design, development and testing, implementation, and evaluation.

Beyond that, Harless was best known for originating and promoting the approach known as front-end analysis (FEA), and for his JAWS (job aid workshop). Joe was all about being systematic and all about accomplishments, not about an individual’s performance or knowledge. It was critical that the human performance technologist maintain focus on business outcomes—to begin, as others have said, with the end in mind—and on developing a partnership with clients.

Allison Rossett, a member of The eLearning Guild’s Advisory Board, commented, “I admired so much about Joe. He was irreverent, smart, brash, surprising, and practical. No goal overwhelmed him. Here’s an example—the guy thought he could fix the public schools and he set out to do it. From what I’ve heard, he did make a difference. Joe wrote a book called An Ounce of Analysis is Worth a Pound of Objectives. True then, true now. Joe got it. It’s a major loss and I’ve been sad ever since I heard he’d passed.”

Three of the past presidents of the International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) also provided comments to Learning Solutions on Joe’s life and career.

Marc Rosenberg (ISPI President 1990-1991, and member of The eLearning Guild’s Advisory Board) observed, “Joe would most likely call himself a scientist. He truly believed that performance improvement was mostly science, with a little art thrown in. His pioneering work in ‘front-end analysis,’ a term he coined, was just the most public of his many contributions.  His classic book, An Ounce of Analysis, is as valid today as it was when he published it decades ago, and it is still essential reading. He was a staunch advocate of human performance technology and made it work—both in the private sector and the public, including public education, of which I think he was most proud. Joe spoke his mind and was unafraid to challenge unfounded beliefs, especially among those in kindred fields such as training. To hear Joe speak with such passion and humor about what we were doing right—and what we were doing wrong—you couldn’t help but reexamine your own positions and recommit to do better, more impactful work. Joe Harless was a giant in the field and will be sorely missed.”

Ruth Clark, president of ISPI from 1996 to 1997, reflected, “Joe had many clients over the years who used his ABCD (accomplishment-based curriculum development) method. As for me, many many years ago Joe wrote me a very kind acknowledgement regarding one of my first articles in P&I (Performance Improvement Journal, the ISPI magazine).  I was thrilled that he not only read the article, he took the time to write an encouraging note to a junior practitioner.  Joe seemed liked the kind of person with the energy to be around forever.  Even though he is gone, his legacy will endure. I know I share grief with all at his passing.”

Guy Wallace was ISPI president from 2003 to 2004. He recalls, “Joe Harless taught me—and others—to never say no. I recall Joe on the stage at an NSPI (now ISPI) conference so many years ago—decades ago, actually. He was complaining about how some in attendance, and in general, were offering advice about saying ‘no’ to clients’ requests for training. He said something to the effect of, “when your client asks you for help in developing some training, do not, repeat, do not say (in a whiny voice), ‘Are you sure it’s a training problem!?!’ Instead say, ‘Yes—I can help you—and I can help you even more if we can do a little analysis first!” The way Joe was is the way Joe is—in my mind and in my heart. He will live forever with me for the decades of lessons I learned annually from his example: of always being willing to invite others into the conversation, the gathering, for serious talk about performance improvement, and for fun. And I’m sure that’s the way he will live in the minds of hundreds of others. Generously sharing with others. Because that’s the way Joe was.”

To give you a little flavor of what the man was like, here’s a video of Joe at the ISPI 50th anniversary conference in Toronto earlier this year: http://eppic.biz/2012/04/30/video-joe-harless-at-ispis-50th-anniversary-conference-in-toronto/

At Learning Solutions Magazine and The eLearning Guild, we extend our condolences to Joe’s family and to his many friends and colleagues around the world. We continue to recommend his books to anyone who wants to learn how to be truly effective at improving the accomplishments of human beings and organizations. Joe Harless will be remembered and revered for many years for his spirit and his contributions.


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I ran into Joe Harless in the 80s in a workshop called Accomplishment Based Curriculum Development (ABCD)...which later wound up as HPT with Saba and then as the root content of the ASTD Human Performance Improvement Certificate course. After drinking the Kool-Aid three times, I became an advocate of Joe's methodology, and it is still relevant today. His influence has been a blessing and there is a gap in the force at his passing.
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