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Learning & Development

The truth about skills development

October 1, 2019

Technology, cross-sector disruption and global talent shortages have re-emphasised the importance of skills in the workplace. Yet I attended an industry event a few weeks ago where a global supplier of digital learning equated those skills directly with courses completed. It’s the old knowledge vs. skills dilemma, disguised through new technology.  And with so many vendors talking about skills development, the phrase has been bandied so much that it's lost some of its meaning.

So, what are we actually talking about when we talk about skills? Simply put, a skill is the ability to do something. In the workplace context, that typically means executing activities (thinking and doing) that deliver a performance output in some shape or form. Having the knowledge about something or how to do it is not enough. And just completing a course on it does nothing to embed that knowledge, with much of it not being retained afterwards (even if the knowledge assessment is a pass).

The truth is that developing knowledge into skills is often a complex, tedious process for both individuals and organisations alike. Geoff Colvin, author of Talent is Overrated (2008), and more recently Anders Ericcson, author of Peak (2016), both refer to deliberate practice as being a key ingredient in the skills development process. Deliberate practice involves defining clear goals, analysing the elements of success and practising becoming excellent in each element.

According to Ericsson, ‘deliberate practice takes place outside one’s comfort zone and requires a student to constantly try things that are just beyond his or her current abilities. Thus it demands near-maximal effort, which is generally not enjoyable’. In the workplace, this means giving people sufficient guidance and opportunity to practice, receive feedback, reflect, practice, receive feedback, reflect, and so on and so on, for a given skill. For the individual, this means focus, discipline and effort. But more than that, it requires practising practice itself - redefining how we approach specific skills improvement.

And once someone has developed a skill, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re skilled. Achieving greater levels of proficiency and mastery of a skill takes time. Driving a car for the first time doesn’t make you a skilled driver. Facilitating a coaching conversation for the first time doesn’t make you a skilled coach. You will need more knowledge, perspective and practice to enhance your proficiency level. Skills development, unlike course completion, is a non-programmatic, non-linear, iterative process.      

On top of that, not all skills are equal. Some skills are more concrete and some skills are more abstract. The more abstract a skill, the slower (and potentially more complex) the development process is (think hard skills vs. soft skills).  An example is learning how to create a project plan versus learning how to build rapport with different personality types. The theory might be similar in weight. But the practice is a lot more abstract and complex where the latter is concerned. In addition, some ‘skills’ are in fact skill-sets (sets of skills) which further exaggerates the level of abstraction. Things like project management, leadership, coaching, and communication.

How to really develop skills

Realistically, it’s hard for people and organisations to effect drastic change, so skills frameworks that are too big, too broad and too abstract are unlikely to translate into tangible behavioral change (behaviors in this context are skills embedded over time).  BJ Fogg, a behavioral scientist from Stanford University and author of Tiny Habits (2019) argues that the only behaviours that people can really control are small habits.

It’s hard for people and organisations to effect drastic change, so skills frameworks that are too big, too broad and too abstract are unlikely to translate into tangible behavioral change.
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Think about, for example, closing your laptop and making eye contact when someone is talking to you or setting and managing a clear agenda for every meeting.  Can your skills frameworks be broken down into more granular skills that make the development process more manageable, digestible and - most importantly, actionable for your workforce, like a collection of small habits?

Another factor to consider is the malleability of skills. This refers to the likelihood of someone being able to develop a given skill or skill-set, should they not have the necessary underlying attributes.  For example, emotional stability and proactivity may be very difficult to develop and change in adults as they are attributes typically tied to early childhood experiences.

 A few years ago, I established a coaching Center of Excellence, comprising of a team of professional in-house coaches.  Their sole mission was to develop the coaching skills of managers. We broke ‘coaching’ (a skill-set) down into 4 distinct skills, namely questioning, listening, building rapport and driving measurable results. Each skill had 4 proficiency levels. We delivered an intensive 12 week coaching skills development program followed by frequent coaching supervision (coaching, feedback, mentoring).  On average 56 1:1 coaching supervision hours were facilitated per manager.

The results? Overall performance improvements were evident. However, from a skills development perspective, 30% of managers could not achieve the required proficiency levels.  This was put down to deeper communication skills and emotional intelligence. Are we swimming upstream by believing that all skills can be developed?

man practising surfing skills in deep water

Given the importance of skills, we need to start taking skills development seriously, focusing on those that can be developed and cutting through the latest technology fads and homing in on what we’re really trying to achieve.  In one of IBM’s latest studies, The skills gap is not a myth but can be addressed with real solutions (2019), it recommends a multi-modal approach to skills development. Personalised learning experiences that are experiential and in the flow of work, supported by classroom and digital learning.

We see magpie as an important building block in that learning ecosystem, supporting personalisation through AI-powered skills-based learning recommendations that seamlessly integrate into the flow of work. But that’s just one block. Here are some wider-ranging tips that can help you advance your organisation’s skills development strategy:

Think beyond technology and digital

Think more broadly about your learning ecosystem and ensure provision for practice, feedback and reflection loops to optimise skills development initiatives.  Embed learning into your organisation’s ways of working and into the flow of work.  

Adopt a multi-modal approach

This includes digital learning, mentoring, classroom, job shadowing, stretch assignments, the job itself. Get people learning and practicing.

Measure what matters

Consider what your leading indicators for skills development and behaviour change could be to supplement early indicators like course completion and content engagement.  Will Thalheimer’s Learning Transfer Evaluation Model (LTEM) provides a great framework for considering measures could work for you, given your organisational context.

Check relevance

Review your skills frameworks and make sure they are specific and contextualised to the roles people are expected to fulfil.  Sometimes we’re working with futuristic skills. Make sure these are well socialised with your organisation so people understand why they’re mission critical. The closer skills are to the work people do, the more opportunity they have to practice, receive feedback, reflect. Think about what skills lend themselves more to talent acquisition and less to skills development.

Get granular

Break skills and skill-sets down into bite-sized chunks. Include clear definitions to provide context. ‘Leadership’, for instance, is too broad, too vague and too ambiguous (even with a definition). The more granular the more concrete, and the more concrete the more likely you are to affect change.  Think about how skills would typically show up in the workplace. What would you be looking to observe? This may give you a clue on how to break it down.  

Involve managers

They’re one of the key resources you can leverage to support the skills development process, especially at scale.  As someone eloquently said to me the other day, learning lives and dies around managers. Our recent MIT Sloan Management Review piece on the downstream damage of the skills gap has further suggestions on how to empower managers with everything they need to succeed.

Consider skills-mentoring

That is, where someone who has a skill that someone else wants to develop helps mentor that person. The mentoring relationship focuses on a particular skill and leverages peer-to-peer learning opportunities. Almost anyone can become a mentor on the basis that they have a skill that someone else wants to develop.


Combine all of the above and we can really take a stride forward in helping people learn the actual skills that they need to succeed in their job - helping the organisation succeed. Adopt a skills-first mentality, break those skills down into granular components and cater to their development with a multi-modal learning ecosystem.

See what skills-based learning recommendations look like for yourself. Try magpie for L&D below.

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