Category Archives: Terminology

What is the difference between HPE, HPT and HPI and does it matter?

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(Editor’s note: Since this website started, the intent has been for guest bloggers to share their wisdom with this audience. Thank you Ms.Marshall for being the first to post with an excellent topic and article. Enjoy – JDN)

 HPE, HPT, HPI, What?

Authored by: Vivian Marshall, PhD, and Travis Lowe
Edited by: James D. Newman

The terms Human Performance Engineering (HPE), Human Performance Technology (HPT), and Human Performance Improvement (HPI) have been used interchangeably, ever since Tom Gilbert introduced the term in the late 1970s. This is unfortunate as some believe this misuse of terms may have created a lack of understanding of the concepts and a breakthrough in human performance improvement. This article focuses on establishing definitions for each of the terms, and providing evidence that clarity and agreement on these terms is critical to moving forward with a comprehensive and viable approach to improving human performance.

A Common Language

Langdon first documented the importance of using a common language that is understood by all in his book, The New Language of Work (1995). This book grew out of Langdon’s frustrations from observing Quality Groups struggling to discuss and solve problems without an agreed upon language. Langdon noted that without a common language, individuals may jump to solutions (which may or may not be the best initiative), and actually believe they are talking about the same things when they were not. This confusion resulted in endless debates that did not produce a viable solution. Langdon concluded many times the solution chosen was the result of the person who shouted the loudest instead of using analysis data to clarify and substantiate the facts of a given situation.

This lack of a commonly agreed upon language accepted by the majority of people may have created a barrier to acceptance and application of HPE, HPT, and HPI.  Gilbert (1978) first created the term “Human Performance Engineering” when he came to the conclusion that formal learning programs too often only brought about a change in knowledge; not a change in behavior. Gilbert was a behavioral psychologist who worked with B.F. Skinner. While Skinner was working on positive reinforcement, Gilbert was analyzing the attributes of good performers in an attempt to understand competency.  Gilbert’s discovery that skills cannot transfer or modify behaviors if the work environment presents barriers to the desired performance, was a major breakthrough for taking a new approach to human performance problems.

What is performance?

Gilbert’s observations lead to his concluding that performance is a function of an interaction between a person’s behavior and his or her work environment (or P = B x E). Gilbert’s discovery provided the basis for systematically analyzing performer behaviors and identifying barriers to performance in the work environment. Despite the fact that Gilbert copyrighted his work in 1978, little progress has been made in the corporate world toward implementing a holistic approach (such as HPE) to human performance improvement.

The words “Human Performance”

While there are clear definitions for engineering, technology, and improvement, when human performance is added in front of these terms, for some reason, clarity is loss on what each means and they are typically used interchangeably. However, it important that each term be clearly defined because each has a distinctively different meaning.

Let’s look at the definitions of engineering; technology, and improvement.

  • Engineering has been defined as the discipline, art and profession of acquiring and applying scientific, mathematical, economic, social, and practical knowledge to design and build structures, machines, devices, systems, materials and processes that helps ensure a desired objective is safely achieved.
  • Most of the existing literature will tell you that technology is the usage and knowledge of tools, techniques, and crafts.
  • Improvement is the act of improving or changing something for the better.

Why then, when the term human performance is added to each of these terms, is the clarity of its meaning lost? Perhaps it should be that the discipline is Human Performance Engineering (HPE) the technology or methodology used is Human Performance Technology (HPT) and the outcome or result should be Human Performance Improvement (HPI).

Lockheed Martin, Orlando, Florida, has defined Human Performance Engineering (HPE) as a systematic approach to solving complex problems experienced by individuals, teams or units. As stated on their website, HPE utilizes Human Performance Technology (HPT), which includes a rigorous analysis of current and desired levels of performance, to identify the causes for the performance gap, offers a wide range of interventions, guides the change management process, and provides evaluation and feedback on the results. We can agree that Human Performance Engineering uses Human Performance Technologies (HPT) in one seamless process for integrating training and non-training solutions in order to develop and employ human resources wisely so that the actions result in Human Performance Improvement (HPI).

Human Performance Engineering has been described as a diagnostic process similar to a doctor and patient relationship. While the diagnostic and prescriptive processes are part of HPE, a doctor focuses on the problem primarily residing with the patient. With HPE, no such assumption is made. HPE may focus on an individual’s performance in order to understand the performance gap, but the in-depth analyses must take into account the fact that there are many other factors, which can affect his or her performance. Human Performance Engineering goes beyond identifying and resolving individual performance problems—we firmly believe that Human Performance Engineering helps ensure individual performance problems are addressed and resolved AND performance barriers, such as equipment, materials, knowledge, methods, administrative and managerial systems are analyzed for possible corrections or enhancements so there will be significant improvement in overall performance that leads to improved bottom line results.

In short Human Performance Engineering focuses on correcting, enhancing and/or adding to– (engineering) the work environment– so that barriers to performance are removed and the environment supports the desired behaviors. Of course the individual must have the skills, knowledge and attitudes to perform the desired tasks safely and efficiently. Most individuals in the field agree that Human Performance Engineering goes beyond simply training an individual.


There are many kinds of engineers such as mechanical engineers, process engineers, electrical engineers, etc. Each type of engineer specializes in a particular type or field of engineering. Human Performance Engineering specializes in human performance improvement resulting in organizational efficiency and effectiveness. Engineering is not a set of steps that can be applied to every problem the same way each time, but a skilled engineer has a toolkit filled with tools, technologies, and methods that can be applied to a particular situation to resolve the engineering problem. Human Performance Engineering is also not a “cookbook” approach with the same steps applied each time in the exact same way; it is a Systematic Approach. Similar to other engineers the Human Performance Engineer should have in their toolkit tools, technologies and methods that can be applied to help resolve performance issues.

Systematic Approach

A Systematic Approach begins by establishing the current situation; then identifying the desired or future situation (the level of desired performance). Diagnostic activities such as clarifying the problem or opportunity, and defining desired outcomes or what success looks like are crucial. Steps include assessing performance, conducting gap analysis, identifying factors causing the gap, along with developing intervention options, completing feasibility studies, and/or, depending upon the performance gap, other types of analyses.

Human Performance Engineering, while not in the embryonic phase, is still in its early infancy even though it has been over thirty years since Gilbert introduced the concept. For the field to expand and develop, it is imperative to have clear definitions for what we do, how we do it, and what the value is that we provide to the organization. Another possible contributor to the lack of development of the HPE field may be due to the lack of an agreed upon set of tools that can be used to approach the field of Human Performance Improvement (or a comprehensive approach) to engineering human performance. Little research has resulted in the development of applicable tools for analyzing, implementing, and evaluating non-training interventions.

Some organizations have recognized that behaviors are important but only a few have adapted Gilbert’s model for Performance (P = B x E). With an agreed upon definition to the three terms, progress is possible in moving Human Performance Engineering to the forefront of what leaders do.

More topical links (thanks to some readers for additional recommendations)

Click here for what ISPI says about HPT

Click here for Human Performance Improvement

Click here for Human Performance Improvement vs Technology

Langdon’s Language of Work Model

Clarify “HPT”

2008 Rummler video

ISPI Performance Improvement

Some advice from the Editor

Consider a “Common Language” document with definitions for all of your Human Performance terms, and you can remove the definitions from all of the other procedures. Consider “Near Misses” as a good place to start, or what constitutes a “Peer” when Peer Checking.