How L&D professionals can leverage awareness to catalyse skill development

As well as using cutting-edge methods like gamification and microlearning, practitioners must also take a unique approach to each learner’s needs, explains Tanya Boyd

With current UK job vacancies at a high, the flood of potential employees now on the market as a result of the recent furlough finale should be good news. However, it is unlikely that these candidates have the perfect skill sets to match all jobs on offer, so HR departments need to find ways to support new hires to learn new skills quickly. The approach that is taken will also likely be one of the factors potential employees consider in deciding which job to accept. 

I have seen many new vendors focusing on skill development enter the L&D market in the past 18 months, proposing to support L&D departments in upskilling and reskilling employees shuffled by the pandemic. Much of their marketing focuses on their cutting-edge digital platforms that incorporate gamification, spaced learning, social learning, microlearning, various levels of synchronous environments, and multi-modal course materials. These approaches to skill development are based on research about how people learn, and are likely improvements on what was industry standard prior to the pandemic; but I believe something is missing.

That something is awareness. Awareness of where each employee is on the continuum between ineptitude and mastery related to the skill in question. Awareness of each person's strengths, gaps, resources, learning preferences. Awareness of the environment in which the new employee will need to demonstrate the new skill. Awareness of the level of expertise of other current employees. Imagine the difference in effectiveness of an upskilling program where awareness is present.

This ideal would offer an upskilling approach specific and unique to each employee that would take into account what they already know, what their specific gaps are, and how they learn best. This would provide the fastest path to performance of a new skill, and would also be the most likely approach to maintain interest and engagement of the learner while they are gaining the skill. I can hear the cries of “not scalable!”. And it is true; at the moment, we still find ourselves not too far beyond a ‘one size fits all’ approach. We still tend to point a learner at a pre-designed course and tell them to press start; though that course now may include games, badges, spaced learning, and application components.

Activating awareness for employees

In this environment, I believe that activating awareness in learners is the one thing that can most increase the effectiveness of any approach to upskilling, and it is scalable and efficient because it puts the power in the hands of each employee rather than needing to be engineered into every existing training course. Activating awareness means being able to draw on one's awareness about personal strengths and gaps related to a specific outcome in order to guide effort and energy to achieve that outcome.

At an individual level, we can activate awareness by:

  • Ensuring employees know why they need the new skill; how it will impact their safety, job performance, pay, etc. When they care about the skill, they will look for the best ways for them to learn it.

  • Helping learners identify what they already know related to the skill; what strengths do they have already that they can bring to the skill? Feeling that they are already part way down the pathway to competency in a new skill is motivating, and can save time. Even if they still need to go through a standard training, they may be more likely to actively quicken their progress through these known topics. 

  • Helping learners identify where their particular gaps are related to the skill. What is likely to be their biggest challenge or obstacle to gaining the competence in this skill? Identifying these up front is an active process, and helps to focus learners on the components of training that are most relevant to their personal success.

  • Helping learners determine how they will overcome the gaps they identified. Following the gaps question with this one is empowering because learners will gain confidence that they can overcome the obstacles most likely to get in their way. If they don't have an answer, then it is important to find the answer before going farther. Learners who do not know what resources they have to overcome their specific obstacles are likely to get caught by those obstacles. On the other hand, owning individual challenges AND knowing how you will overcome them is very empowering and likely to speed up time to competence in a new skill.

  • If you have the flexibility in your organisation, helping learners identify their preferred approach to learning the skill. Do they learn best through coursework, reading, watching videos, peer mentoring, etc.? When learners identify the way they learn best, and an organisation supports them in this approach, their learning is likely to be much faster and more effective.

Preference-based profiles and personality assessments such as Insights Discovery, along with skill audits, can help activate awareness and identify personalised strengths, gaps, and resources; as well as learning preferences.

Tanya Boyd is learner experience architect at Insights Learning and Development