In several of the markets that I work in, one of the often-lamented concern of industry and governments alike is the lack of skilled manpower to support the growth of the economy. The reasons could be different in each country ranging from underperforming education systems that cannot cater to the needs of industry to an ageing workforce to upcoming challenges posed by automation.
The solution devised in most cases seems to be to throw a lot of money behind the problem and focus on “Skill Development” as a major policy initiative. The success of these initiatives is not immediately apparent and there is still a lot of tinkering on what ought to be the right approach.
Taking a holistic view of this subject, let us ask ourselves what is the objective of skill development. The answer is perhaps “to ensure that people assigned to perform tasks are competent to do so”. However, competency goes beyond simply the skills to perform a task.
Let me try and break these down into three main buckets:
1. Skills: Provision of knowledge / training and practical experience to enable a person to perform a task.
2. The 5 A’s:
Incidentally, Skill Development, by itself, may do little to enhance any of these attributes.
3. Contextual Knowledge: Notwithstanding the presence of all other attributes, in today’s knowledge economy, there is a need to recognize that we are constantly dealing with variety and complexity. This is where existing knowledge that may have been provided through other means needs to be supplemented with contextual knowledge – when required and where required. As a matter of fact even once imparted classroom knowledge, if not applied immediately, tends to be forgotten and needs to be reinforced.
My hypothesis is that plenty of attention has been given to the issue of skill development with very little thought around strategies for targeting aspects of creating competency. The traditional thinking goes that once skills have been imparted, the rest will follow almost automatically. There is something fundamentally wrong with the notion that the simple act of imparting skills will be in itself be able to lead to competency. This is probably something we all understand based on our experience.
Learning and Development professionals would have, no doubt, come across the 70:20:10 model first postulated by Morgan McCall, Michael M. Lombardo and Rober W. Eichinger in their 1996 book The Career Architect Development Planner.
While the absolute numbers may be debatable, the key take-away is the fact throwing a lot of time and money behind formal learning or skill development alone, is not going to make a competent individual.
Let me dwell into each of these three learning pathways and their limitations in today’s context.
Formal Learning: The learning methods that are being deployed in the case of today’s learners are questionable. A formal classroom training session may have worked well with a generation that did not have exposure to the Internet and smart phones. These tech savvy new learners however, may really not have the patience to sit through what they would perceive are boring lectures filled with facts they could have googled. With a lower attention span, there need to be efforts to explore how technology can be leveraged to make this an integral part of the learning.
Informal Learning: This usually is self-directed by the learner. This could occur through multiple channels and also includes knowledge picked up from interaction with peers and supervisors. In the context of a physical organization and workplaces, this perhaps works well. However, we are today living in a work environment where an increasing number of workers are individuals and perform work that is “contractual” in nature. An increasing number of workers also tend to be “remote” workers. As such, the opportunities to learn from others are getting narrower.
On-the-job-experience: A bulk of an individual's learning and development occurs in this phase. In the industrial era, the repetitive nature of jobs may have resulted in this experience being acquired with the passage of time. However, in the knowledge era, this may require more than just “time”. With increased automation and an ever-increasing range of products and services, what the front-end employee needs today is an ability to adapt themselves to new and complex scenarios they encounter each day.
What changes are needed? It is apparent that the way we conceptualize skill development needs to move beyond the narrow focus on skills. While a basic skill training may be a good starting point, this needs to be supplemented with good coaching and mentoring to lead employees into a life-long learning journey.
Matching human resource capability to the changing needs of society and technology is an timeless struggle. As we see a fundamental shift to a knowledge economy, we need to alter our L&D initiatives to be in tune with the needs of the knowledge industry. This requires:
My Take: Skill Development is not a silver bullet. The ability to “learn how to learn” is possibly the single-most important takeaway from the early years of professional development. Beyond that, there is an opportunity for the L&D professional and technology sector to innovate learning methods to cater to a changing work environment and learning styles of a savvy workforce.