Applying Thomas Gilbert's BEM

Let's Recap

In our last installment of this three-part series, introduced the work of Tom Gilbert and Roger Chevalier since their intellectual legacy is a foundation of the Workplace Probe Study. We also cataloged my sob-story of how I evolved into a training and development professional.

In this installment of my three-part post, I'm going to unpack some of Tom's work in a more applied manner and hopefully give you some helpful thinking tools.

The Behavior Engineering Model

The Behavior Engineering Model (BEM) is a bit of a mouthful, so my professional peers and I shorten it to, "B-E-M." Other consultants rebranded the BEM under various names to make the concept more accessible to business folks where the trainers are asking for a seat at the table. I have mixed feelings about this since it might serve the needs of the consultants, but it creates confusion within our field. It also makes it difficult for the thought leaders in our industry to establish thought leadership since they all use different phrases to describe the same thing. To highlight this point, a professor of mine, one Dr. Steven Villachica of Boise State University told me once that this is a universal practice, but one I feel gives other business professionals the impression that we don't have our act together as a profession. 

I this constant re-branding shuffle also tends to occur alongside this increasingly tedious excuse from training professionals.

Well, I have to dumb it down, or my clients won’t understand what I have to say.

I take issue with this phrasing in two respects. First, "dumbing down," how you speak to people is condescending and disrespectful. A lack of knowledge on the part of a client is no excuse to, "dumb it down," because it implies the client is not smart enough to figure this out. After talking through and using the BEM with clients, I can personally attest that most of my clients are a heck of a lot smarter than I am in many respects and they quickly see the value of the BEM. Second, I believe the reason why many of my peers struggle to communicate about the BEM is that they've lost sight of what is essential to the client; the client cares about behavior change in employees, not the academic origins of the BEM. Once I present the BEM as a tool to think with when it comes time to decide how to invest the training budget, then the business sits forward and pays attention. There is a lesson here folks; clients care about their business, not yours.

The BEM is All About The Business

Focusing on the value-add behaviors of employees was precisely where Tom Gilbert wanted readers to focus when he wrote Human Competence so many years ago. The BEM is intended as a framework to analyze what's driving or inhibiting employee performance. Once you understand the work environment and what plays a role in how employees perform on the job, then you are in a much better position to make sensible recommendations on where training will move the needle and where it's just a waste of time and money.

The BEM is more interested in systems than individuals

Remember the story about my cousin and her boss who thought computer training would compensate for not upgrading his IT systems for over a decade? Sure you can assume your employees have grown rusty over the last ten years of doing their job, but when you stop to think about it, that doesn't make any sense. How would a decade of experience cause someone's skills to grow rusty? Even accounting for turn over and switching jobs inside the company, the owner should not have seen productivity slow down across the board. If a performance problem seems to impact a whole group of employees, then there's something wrong with the environment, not the employees.  

The BEM Can Cut Through A Lot of Noise

One of the problems that any business owner has is the mental bandwidth she has to run her business while still having a life. I've yet to meet an entrepreneur that wasn't in some state of information overload. The business owner will also have limited time to sit down, clear her head, and focus on the problem. She probably has about 15 minutes before her employees are clamoring for her attention. If I had an opportunity to serve her business and say, "Ma'am, let me take this off your shoulders. I need 90 minutes with the team, and I will come back in two days with an executive summary of where you can make an impact. It might involve training, but it might not. Give me a few days, and I will have some actionable answers for you."

Gamestorming The BEM

Gamestorming  is one of my favorite brainstorming how-to guides. As the image of the book cover suggests,  Gamestorming  involves active participation and movement to keep participants engaged.

Gamestorming is one of my favorite brainstorming how-to guides. As the image of the book cover suggests, Gamestorming involves active participation and movement to keep participants engaged.

As promised in the first part of this three-part blog post, I would present the BEM in a more applied context. To do so, I will reveal one of Argyle Analytic's secret ingredients to our meeting management strategy and help show the BEM in action. I make no secret that I love the book Gamestorming by Sunni Brown and James Macanufo, and we apply Gamestorming concepts quite liberally in our facilitation designs. In the book, the authors lay out some rather straightforward principals for meeting facilitation that keep participants engaged, focused, and best of all, writing down their ideas and observations to help you with data collection. 

Gamestorming Helps With Managing Focus Groups

I love focus groups, but I typically find that the open-ended conversations to be a bit hard to analyze after they are over. The participants tend to wander around in the conversation, which in some cases can be helpful, but when I have 90 minutes with employees -- that's (1.5 hours * # of employees * average hourly wage) = costs to the business -- I can't afford to have them wandering around on topics. I need them to focus on what's essential to the business, which is where the boss can invest her money to improve employee performance. Applying Gamestorming principles is relatively easy if you have any experience in meeting management and have suffered through the mad dash to take notes during a group discussion.

Recapping the BEM

Let's do a quick recap of the BEM before we explore a facilitation methodology. The BEM is Tom Gilbert's framework for evaluating workplace performance opportunities and challenges. 

This four by three table is based on the work of Thomas F. Gilbert and is colloquially referred to by training and management consultants as, "The B-E-M."

This four by three table is based on the work of Thomas F. Gilbert and is colloquially referred to by training and management consultants as, "The B-E-M."

For a more detailed explanation of what each of these factors means, please read Part 1 of this blog post.

Gamestorming Only Works if You Set Ground Rules

Having rules for your game is essential because participants need bounding parameters by which to express their creativity and perspectives if you are to produce a valuable result for the boss. Nothing makes me shudder more than hearing a meeting leader start a meeting with the phrase, "We need some out of the box thinking on this one folks. Let's start spitballing ideas and see what sticks." When it comes to Gamestorming and The BEM you literally can't afford to entertain out of the box thinking; The BEM is nothing but boxes intended to catalog and differentiate employee perceptions of the workplace.

A Sample Gamestorming Agenda for a BEM Workshop

Now that we've covered some BEM and Gamestorming basics, we can get down to brass tacks. Here is a sample agenda for a gamified workshop on the BEM.

Workshop Agenda

  • 5 min. - Introductions
  • 10 min. - Ground Rules & What to Expect
  • 15 min. - Explain the process and core concepts
  • 5 min. - Silent brainstorming of workplace challenges
  • 5 min. - Post your ideas about workplace challenges
  • 5 min. - Carefully review all the posted ideas
  • 30 min. - Discuss, de-duplicate, condense or split idea
  • 15 min. - Debrief and what to expect next

While having an agenda is nice, there has to be a methodology behind a facilitated meeting where the goal is to collect employee perceptions of issues in the workplace. Using this agenda, I can explore several of the core concepts hiding in the brevity of the agenda.

Explaining BEM Factors for An Uninformed Audience

Skipping over Introductions in the agenda, I want to jump right into Explain the process and core concepts to employees. I cannot underscore the importance of speaking in the parlance of your audience when it comes time to explain the BEM to an uninformed audience. For this activity to produce anything valuable, you need to meet your participants where they are.  For anyone in my audience who's read Human Competence, they will remember that the book is pretty academic. Without a college degree and a firm grounding in the Human Sciences, your audience may need you to phrase your explanations in a way that's more accessible to them based on their background and level of education. Even with seasoned and highly educated business professionals, you want to keep your explanation of the concepts clear and brief. If you are interviewing front-line employees, you need to adjust your approach to help them feel comfortable and engaged in the process. Use analogies, metaphors, and examples whenever possible.  Speaking the language -- sometimes literally -- is not something you can bypass. If your participants can't relate to you, then they won't open up to you. While the topic of diversity and how to leverage it in your business is beyond the scope of this post, I'd recommend reading our position on the value of honoring diversity in your organization.

The Mechanics of Gamestorming The BEM

I love Gamestorming because it's more than just a meeting facilitation methodology, it's a way to combine structured facilitation, active engagement, and qualitative data analysis all in one fun conversation. To quote Dr. Don Winiecki, one of my professors from Boise State University's Organizational Performance and Workplace Learning program,

Focus groups are great because if you manage them well, your participants will do a lot of the data analysis for you.
— Dr. Don Winiecki

I've found this to be entirely accurate over the years. However, it's the, "manage them well," aspect of Dr. Winiecki's advice that can be hard on participants and the facilitator. Too little structure and you risk walking out of the room with a lot of irrelevant information. Too much structure and your participants will become fatigued and lose focus. Here are some simple instructions that strikes a balance between too much and too little structure. 

  1. Everyone grab a pad of post-its
  2. We are going to have a short period of silence where everyone writes down their ideas, one idea per post-it note
  3. Get as many ideas onto the post-its as possible in the time allotted
  4. Each idea should be a reaction to this prompt

"Thinking about each factor we just discussed, write down the things that are holding back your on-the-job performance." If you are big on appreciative inquiry, then you can use two colors of post-its and ask your participants to write down their blockers on one color and the drivers of their performance.

Your Responsibility with Ethical Data Handling

At this point, be prepared for your participants to ask a lot of questions. Take a moment to answer them, but do your best to assure them that they shouldn't over think things right now because it will make more sense if they just dive-in. One question that will always come up is the issue of confidentiality. It's not uncommon for the boss to come up as an inhibitor of workplace performance and the risk of reprisal from the boss is a concern for many participants. I'd like to say this is not something worry about, but I've worked for some highly vindictive people in my life. I can personally attest that this is a legitimate concern and we, as training professionals, have an ethical obligation to shield employees from retaliation from the boss, even if she is the one signing our check. It might sound a little inflammatory to bring this up, but remember that power dynamics within an organization shape the reality of that organization. The more people in positions of power abuse their authority, the more an organization grows disconnected from the objective reality around us. I will say one more thing before I move on to the next section; be upfront and honest about what will happen with the data your participants share, end of discussion.

Posting Ideas To The BEM

Part of Gamestorming involves the use of a "game board" to which your participants react. Your game board will usually take the form of a large piece of paper or a whiteboard with where you draw your analytical framework. I highly recommend checking out the Gamestorming website since you will find a lot of great examples of facilitation games and get a sense for the different analytical frameworks out there; you may even recognize some of them.

For this activity, draw out the BEM on a surface to which all participants can access ahead of the meeting. When the time comes, help your participants organize their thoughts by directing them to post their ideas in the appropriate part of the BEM. Make sure you spot check their work, the post-its need to go in the right spot.

Analyzing BEM Data

For the most part, your participants will do the analysis; you just have to ask the right questions. The analysis portion of the meeting is really where your knowledge of training best practices and performance improvement makes all the difference. If you're reading this blog post and thinking, "How hard can it be to talk through the implications of a bunch of post-its?" I'll just say, "Grasshopper, you have no idea." The world of training and performance support has become increasingly technological; you have to have a solid understanding of the technical capabilities of different communication channels in your organization. "Wait, how did we get to talking about communication channels?" you might ask. Well padawan, if you haven't noticed, you have a host of different ways to communicate information to your trainees. You have lectures, the LMS, email, instant messaging, the company intranet, internal social media platforms, etc. Each of these becomes a valid tool for performance support and training. To identify the correct intervention, you have to understand the capabilities of each channel to make sure you match the right solution to the problem.

An Example of The BEM in Action 

The Problem

Let's imagine we are working with a business who have field personnel who need to follow specific policies and procedures during their fieldwork. This business provides their field personnel with sets of paper binders containing all the policies and procedures they must follow on the job. When you hear that field personnel are struggling with compliance you conduct a BEM workshop with a mixed group of them.

What the BEM Exposes During The Workshop

Over the course of the workshop, you learn that field personnel lack the time to hunt through paper binders while on-site because of the demands of the work and the distance between the van and where the work is performed. When a field worker needs this information, it's typically time-sensitive, and often the paper copy of the policy they possess could be outdated. To cope, field personnel work from memory as much as possible and text one another for quick answers hoping someone remembers the correct way to complete a particular task. In short, field personnel can't lug around big heavy binders or make frequent trips to the van to check information that might be outdated and they have no way of knowing.

Analyzing You BEM Data

Now, let's talk about the analysis and why an understanding of your company's technological capabilities is essential. It's at this point you need to know the technical capabilities of your different channels for training and performance support, so you don't inadvertently analyze your data in a way constrained by the way it's always been done. We don't want to resort to an old-school solution that fails to leverage the business's technical infrastructure. I could easily see one of my professional peers saying, "Clearly that's an information and feedback issue, so we need to hire more people to help maintain the binders and make sure the assistants audit the binders for accuracy as the regulations change." I could see why some folks might say that; however, I would disagree with that conclusion. First, hiring more staff to solve this problem is probably not in the budget since labor costs are the most significant expense for any business. Second, that solution is highly dependant on human judgment and attention to detail which leaves room for human error to undermine those efforts. Third, continuously re-printing materials is very expensive since you are looking at the cost of materials, labor, delivery, and a higher carbon footprint. The issue is less about the information and more about the process and medium associated with maintaining it and distributing this body of knowledge. Business processes and medium of knowledge transfer, dear reader, are a tools and resources issue and not an access to information issue.

Reporting BEM Results

In my final report to the boss, I would recommend that the company invest in building out a mobile-friendly (i.e., fully responsive) intranet so field personnel can reference policies and procedures while out in the field via a mobile device. Depending on the platform of their intranet, the company can probably configure the website to cache versions of the policies at regular intervals so field personnel can reference them even when there is no data or wifi signal. Most businesses have some software application in their tech stack that could fulfill this recommendation. One program manager could maintain such a knowledge base versus the team that needs to manage and distribute a library of physical binders. The intranet solution could receive technical support from an agency or an internal team already maintaining the company's other systems. Most intranet platforms have built-in search engines which will cut down on the time employees require to look up the correct policy or procedure. The intranet is mobile-friendly so field personnel does not need to haul around a mountain of paper to each worksite.  My recommendation inherently means the business will need to migrate the content of those binders into a digital format which means the annual printing and delivery budget can be slashed and reallocated to technical support for the website. This solution, in the long run, will be a fraction of the cost of professional printing and binding.


In this example, you've seen how we can apply Tom Gilbert's BEM in a way that's actionable and helps uncover the root-cause of performance problems. When you know the root-cause, you can empower a business to take action in a manner that will address the real problem versus spending money on a training program when lack of knowledge is not the real issue.

In my third, and final, installment of this three-part blog post, I will dive into the work of Roger Chevallier and how his work as a training and management consultant expands Tom's BEM into something with a bit more precision and which serves as the basis for Argyle Analytic's Workplace Probe Study. So until then, head on over to and check out some of their facilitation activities, I hope you find something that will help you manage your next meeting more effectively.