Are We Really "Skilling Up" Our Employees?

This blog is generated from the Performance Matters Podcast episode titled “Are We Really ‘Skilling Up’ Our Employees?” In it, Bob Mosher shares his perspectives on popular skill initiatives and offers guidance to ensure we’re not making past mistakes.

Bob Mosher: We're exploring a topic that is of high interest in our industry, and it’s been at the top of our minds because it makes us a little anxious. It's this whole “skilling” idea. 

We recently went to a large conference and asked the several hundred people in the room how many were involved or would be involved in a skilling initiative. Ninety percent of the room raised their hand to indicate they were involved in what our industry is calling reskilling or upskilling. We want to run at that because what makes us a little anxious is that we've been down this road before. I don't know how many of you are old enough to remember “competency modeling”, something our industry tried to do a while back. I want to be careful to say that these initiatives are not bad. Their success depends on how we approach them and how we design for them, plus the outcomes by which we’re judged. 

I think many would argue that the whole competency modeling effort was kind of a failure, because it really didn't get uptake despite the millions of dollars invested in competency modeling programs, consulting, and initiatives. We don't know if organizations ever got the uplift around what true competencies could have meant. Frankly, I don't even know if we define them well. Now that we have this focus on skilling, do we truly know what we're getting into, or are we going to repeat mistakes of the past? Did we take competencies far enough? I was involved in many competency efforts and saw that, as an industry (myself included), we failed to take competencies deep enough into context. If I’ve learned anything through my efforts in workflow learning, it’s that it is all about the workflow. With competency modeling, we never went beyond general, broad lists of competencies based on roles. But roles are defined by workflows, and until you bring that context into the content, efforts around competencies, skilling, reskilling, upskilling, etc. are likely to fail. 

Let's dial it back a bit and start with a definition. I am a huge fan of vocabulary, because our industry has gone awry at times when failing to clearly define things. We toss around terms, we start trends, we begin initiatives. For example, don't get me started on “micro-learning”. It's a term I bash all the time. I don’t bash micro-learning as an initiative, but I honestly don't think we know what it is. I think if you put ten learning professionals in ten different rooms and ask them to define micro-learning, they will give you eight different definitions. I’m not blaming micro-learning, but I am putting some of the blame and responsibility back on us for not clearly defining terms. So, what do we mean by “skill”? When we say we're going to bring skill initiatives into our organization, what do we mean? What is a skill? 

For that definition, I went to the place that I thought would be most helpful: the good old dictionary. Here is what I found for skill: “the ability to use one's knowledge effectively and readily in execution or performance”. Note the word “performance”. In other words, to understand something is not a skill. Instead, a skill is when knowledge is effectively and readily used to execute performance. In our 5 Moments of Need vernacular, a skill is a task. A skill is something people perform. Skills are judged by performance vs. knowledge. Do people have to know things to perform? Of course. We call those things Supporting Knowledge. But the reality is, I've seen some outlines of skill initiatives and, unfortunately, we're mixing it up again. We're putting knowledge-based elements in our skilling (aka performance-based) outlines. So, we must be sure when we do skill analysis, or what we would argue is “workflow analysis”, that we pivot on execution, performance, and the use of knowledge. When someone performs a skill in their job, it is observable because it is executed and performed. And skills are absolutely supported by knowledge, and we will still teach, train, and make knowledge available. But knowing information is not a skill. 

Here's the question, friends. Will we get down to the task level when we define skills? Effective instruction doesn't happen until it reaches the workflow and is defined by tasks performed in the workflow. Here is an example of what’s making me anxious about some of the skill initiative outlines I've seen. Picture the term “sales rep” written on a whiteboard and below it is a list of all the skills—mistakenly, some of these are actually knowledge—that a sales rep performs. That list is not enough, because two things will happen. Number one, the descriptions of what sales reps perform are way too broad; therefore, we teach them to cast too wide of a net. They have to “sell”, or they have to “close a deal”. Well, wait a minute. “Close a deal” is a broad concept. Is that a skill? Or are there skills (aka tasks) within the process of closing a deal that we should define? Number two, if we don't take those skills beyond a list of things that SMEs tell us are important, if we don't contextualize them into a workflow, we will never reach transfer when we try to teach and support these different skills. Why? Because we won't get specific enough to the workflow itself. We must consider the workflow. We must get down to workflow analysis of the skills/tasks that are performed, and support those with Supporting Knowledge. 

What is our end goal of getting to the point where we as an industry can define a skill so that it is performed well and we understand the observable nature of it, so that we can judge whether someone has that skill? When you sit down to discuss skill programs with those you serve, consider two words: “skilled” and “skillful”. These might sound like I'm splitting hairs, but I'm really not, because I think they beget different outcomes. These words will allow us and challenge us to create two very different deliverables. I understand the “up” and “re” parts—upskill and reskill—but to what end? Do we want people to be “skilled”, or do we want them to be "skillful”? I'm not just throwing around different words. I looked them up and “skilled”, by definition, is having acquired mastery of a skill in something. Mastery. If you know our 5 Moments of Need vernacular, if you've seen Train/Transfer/Sustain, mastery is not competency. Mastery alone is not application. Moments one and two (Learn New and Learn More) support someone as they become skilled. We're not saying that's not important. Moments one and two are parts of the 5 Moments of Need. You must be skilled to become skillful. So, here is the definition of skillful: possessed of or displaying skill, accomplished with skills. You see the difference? Skilled is having acquired mastery of a skill; skillful is possessed of or displaying a skill and accomplishing something with that skill. I don't think that can be more perfectly laid out. Skilled is moments one and two only.

In college, I became skilled in accounting. I got an A in the course. I showed mastery. I might have even demonstrated some skills in the course. But I can't do your taxes. Why? Because I never took my accounting knowledge and the degree to which I was skilled in it to become or, more importantly, remain skillful as accounting changed. You see some parallels here? Skilled equates to moments one and two—mastery. Skillful equates to the other moments of Apply, Change, and Solve, moving out to where we apply skills. So, why am I splitting hairs? Because we must be mindful when we sit down with those we serve as we design these skill solutions. Notice I didn’t say “courses” because it's not just courses. It's all about the Digital Coach/Performance Support. It's all about performing in the workflow. But here's my concern. Again, I've seen outlines around this, and we are already backing ourselves into the skilled corner. And there is going to be plenty of skilled content out there. But unless we as an industry and those we serve move into skillful—the transfer of, the display of, the performance of, and remaining current in a skill—we will stop at skilled. We will give pre-tests and post-tests. We’ll identify skills gaps and ask questions like, “Do people know a skill before they start the course? Do they display it or not after they finish the course?” And we're going to be in the exact same situation we've been in forever. We will not cross that powerful line into application and the workflow.

This is a brilliant opportunity for us to use this new trend to set a new bar in the way we design things. A lot of people ask us about the journey to being allowed to use the 5 Moments of Need framework and introducing a Digital Coach. Well, the door has been opened by this whole skill initiative because it's new. Organizations are waiting for us to help define it for them and to build solutions for it. Get in the deep end with this one to drive and direct the dialogue! Challenge those who want you to build reskilling or upskilling programs and ask these questions: “To what end? When we're done with it, what will success look like? Will we have skilled people who have acquired mastery of a skill, or will we have and sustain skillful performers who possess or display a skill and accomplish things with that skill?” I think it's a stunning opportunity. 

But there is a lot of quicksand out there, and we've been down this road before. We must be very careful not to repeat past mistakes. We need to walk through this open door and really introduce these powerful ways of approaching new solutions. Methodology begets solutions, right? So, if we're going to shift and take people beyond skilled to skillful, we need a design methodology. ADDIE is not going to get the job done, and in our 5 Moments of Need vernacular, we have EnABLE. That is our methodology that Dr. Con Gottfredson has spent 50 years of his life perfecting, so that we can ensure a workflow learning, task-based, skillful delivery. As an industry, we've got to adopt new methodology. Now, what comes with that? Tools. We are an industry of tools. We are familiar with things like the LMS, eLearning, the LXP, Zoom, and MS Teams. Those are some hammers in our toolkit that help us build things. If we're going to change our methodology to EnABLE, or another workflow-focused approach, we must also use our tools differently. Better yet, we need to understand what they do. Tools must be well designed and orchestrated. 

A lot of you know the term “blended learning”. You've heard us pick on it before. Back in the 90’s when it first came about, did we ever truly make or design blended learning? Once I considered it through the lens of the 5 Moments of Need, when I was in the thick of a blended learning initiative, I realized I had not made blended learning. Instead, I had made blended training. There's a difference! I had used tools for moments one and two (Learn New and Learn More)—eLearning, coaching, the classroom (all highly effective when used appropriately)—to design blended training. I did not use them or go beyond them to create blended learning.  

The exciting thing about the world we're in today is that our toolkit is more sophisticated than ever. At the same time, it can get complicated. Remember, methodology begets technology. In and of itself, technology has never resulted in anything new or different—at least not in my career. In fact, when I've taken a tools-first approach, it has always died on the vine. Anybody remember the failed virtual world called Second Life? I'm not going to blame a hammer for failing to drive a nail. I'm going to blame the carpenter for not correctly swinging the hammer. So, I don't blame Second Life for how it petered out. What I blame is our approach to it, our design of it, and the methodology we applied to it. In my opinion, that's where that promising virtual world failed. 

Now that we're talking about skills, there are tons of available tools and more opportunities for us to use them, blend them, and orchestrate them wisely. As your colleague, I'll share what I currently see when it comes to tools being leveraged for skills. I’m not saying my view is right or wrong, and you should make your own list. Understand the relationship of the hammer to the nail and the saw to the board. Know when to use which tool and the results you will achieve with each. For me, on the skilled (aka mastery) side, I think the LMS, eLearning, virtual platforms, the classroom, content repositories like SharePoint and others, and even VR and AR platforms are effective. I only listed a handful and there are certainly more remarkably powerful tools that, when used well and focused correctly, can best help with getting people skilled. Remember, skilled means having acquired mastery of a skill. But when we move into people being skillful, meaning they possess or display a skill and accomplish things with that skill, I think we have a whole different set of tools to target. You know our bias—a Digital Coach/EPSS—because we've seen it work brilliantly and achieve high impact and high ROI, resulting in skillful workers. 

A Digital Coach/EPSS must lead the way. It must be the tip of the sword. Like the LMS, eLearning, and maybe the classroom all form the tip of the sword on the skilled side (at least in a digital domain), we would argue that the Digital Coach/EPSS is the tip of the sword on the skillful side, as well as tools like knowledge management platforms and collaborative platforms for coaching and mentoring. We would argue that the LXP clearly falls in this area, although with my bias I think the jury's still out on the LXP and if anyone is really using it well. But back to my Second Life example, I'm not blaming the LXP at all. The implementations I have seen—again, this is my view of the world—are underwhelming. That’s not because of the tool; it’s because of the design. But I think the LXP shows tremendous power and potential on the skillful side. Chatbots and AI engines: these tools are incredibly powerful on the skillful side. So, the blend or orchestration on the skilled side can include the LMS, eLearning, virtual, content repositories, VR/AR, etc. On the skillful side, particularly in the machine learning world, there is lots to do and talk about! But in our current state, I see the Digital Coach/EPSS leading the way, and roles for knowledge management platforms, collaborative platforms, the LXP, chatbots, and AI engines. These kinds of things help us blend learning. 

I'm not saying that's the definitive list. My point is to go back to where this started. If we're going to meet these skill initiatives, we have to know some things, like what do we mean by a skill? Do we do a good job of analyzing skills? When it comes to workflow analysis, task analysis, and critical skills analysis (all things you've heard us talk about in the world of this domain) do we design them well? Do we move away from ADDIE and into a different world that lets us truly design for a workflow-based, 5 Moments of Need solution? And lastly, how do we use the tools in our toolkit? All those things I mentioned above must come ahead of the tool. If you don't do all those things, tools get applied poorly and incorrectly. So, once we've done all the analysis and applied the methodology, after we've defined skills in both the skilled and skillful workflow domains, do we successfully orchestrate and blend tools based on understanding the outcomes of skilled vs. skillful? 

Friends, this is such an important dialogue. We've got to get this right or some scary or dangerous things can happen to those we support. That's where we must learn from our past. We must understand what's in front of us, what works best, and do what's right in these initiatives. We are the learning professionals. We have to drive this dialogue. Just like I would expect a doctor to drive a medical discussion, learning professionals need to drive a learning discussion. And defining skilling is a key conversation for us to direct right now. 

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