Employee upskilling | Performance is the learning destination - not just skills

Performance is the learning destination - not just skills

Steve Dineen, Founder & President, Fuse

Courses have long been the default for corporate learning departments looking to plug skills gaps, but herein lies a fundamental problem: chasing skills through the delivery of courses alone is futile.

Learners can certainly acquire knowledge at training courses, no-one is denying that. The problem is courses don’t enable learners to instantly apply that knowledge in context - and so they don’t support skill development. It’s a point that highlights a key distinction: simply having knowledge does not denote the acquisition of a skill.

Think of it this way: a student who studies David Beckham - a professional athlete who has spent years practising and honing his skill - will not be able to bend a free-kick with the same level of accuracy just because they’ve understood what has been explained to them in a course.

In order to create skills, people need to continually put knowledge into practice, at the same time receiving expert feedback, coaching and mentoring.

Performance first, skills second

But here comes an even bigger question: are skills even the end goal here? I would argue that we need to focus on a different destination: performance.

Of course, a performance-first approach doesn’t negate the need for skill. Far from it. The purpose is rather to keep people focused on the thing that matters most - solving a problem by finding the right answer, at the right time.

Perhaps the biggest case for thinking about performance over skills is that it prompts the learner to work backwards from the problem, enabling them to join the dots and understand what tools, knowledge, and skills they will need to reach the required outcome.

Design for the destination

So what does this mean for learning design?

Focusing on performance as the destination represents only a subtle shift in thinking, yet it calls for significant change at a learning design level. By designing for skills, organisations tend towards course-centric learning programmes that cram learners with knowledge they can neither apply nor retain. In contrast, when designing for performance, focus falls on empowering people to revisit the best and most relevant content as and when they need to refresh their memory in the flow of work. And therein lies the beauty of continuous, everyday learning: not only does it enable learners to tap into tacit and explicit knowledge on demand, it drives improved performance by reducing the distance between knowledge and application.

It’s a point that begs the obvious next question: where does that leave course-led learning? The reality is that it reduces the knowledge we would have put into a course by as much as 80%. Why? Because we know that by placing it into the learner’s flow of work instead, we can create far better performance outcomes.

 Keeping pace in the race for knowledge

It’s a realisation that continues to see organisations of all shapes and sizes swap formal courses for informal, everyday learning - a move that is perhaps none more critical than in fast-moving industries where knowledge changes rapidly. Car manufacturing is a prime example. Five years ago, the principles that a mechanic learned in their initial training would likely serve them for their entire career. Today, with rapidly changing product lines being driven by continuous innovation, that’s no longer the case. We’ve gone from manufacturers releasing a new model of car once a year, to Teslas undergoing software updates once a fortnight - and course-centric learning just can’t keep pace with that.

Are you creating continuous learners?

So what does all this mean when it comes to measuring the impact of L&D?

We know that measuring skills in isolation is meaningless because they don’t impact performance unless they’re applied often and in context. What we need to do is supplement skill measurement with the capability to continuously learn in the flow of work. We need to look at the business’ performance goals and work out how skills and in-flow learning are connected to the achievement of those.

The first step here is to make continuous learning habits the measure of success rather than course completion. Instead of ticking a box to say that ‘Bob from Sales’ has acquired X skills, leaders need to be looking at whether Bob is developing continuous learning habits that drive improved performance. And how do we know this? Because data consistently tells us that those who demonstrate positive and habitual learning behaviours will outperform those who do not.

Ultimately, by focusing on skills rather than continuous learning and performance, the L&D department will miss a key opportunity to drive tangible business benefits. Ask yourself this: would you rather upskill 20 people or see those 20 people performing 50% better?

If you’d like to know more about enabling a performance-first learning culture underpinned by actively engaged, continuous learning, contact the Fuse team by clicking here.

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Fuse Universal

Fuse is the learning and knowledge platform that sparks active engagement and ignites people performance. It is used by more than 120 enterprises around the world, including Vodafone, Panasonic, Scandic, Avon, Mazda and BAE, and connects people with the knowledge and expertise they need to acquire new skills and achieve high performance at work.