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  • Writer's pictureRob Wright

What Does Skill Building *Actually* Look Like?

Updated: Sep 27, 2023

For all the talk lately about 'upskilling,' it's worth pausing to revisit how skill acquisition actually happens. If we deliver more content + quizzes, don't people gain skill? What about if we use bite-sized lessons? Cohorts? Engaging lessons with lots of interactivity? These are great things, but they're only lightly tied to lasting skill gain. Below are 3 learning principles that can help your team build skill. (*spoiler alert - alot of them involve AI-powered simulations and practice*). 1) Prioritize Content + Skills The first step to driving faster skill-building is prioritization. Many companies - understandably - try to cover all topics that a learner may need to know. The logic goes something like 'I want to equip them for whatever they may see once they're live in their role.' But learning science suggests that, despite our good intentions, this approach to training and upskilling usually backfires. Humans have limited capacity to understand, remember, and apply a large number of topics in a short amount of time. Rather than cramming every possible training topic in a 2 to 4-week onboarding experience, day-long workshop, or whatever the modality is, it's better to apply the 80/20 rule and focus on nailing a smaller set of priority topics and skills. Others can be revisited via other means once the learner is further along in their upskilling journey.



2) Start with One Way Training and practicing the simplest, most efficient route to a good outcome is usually a faster route to skill gain. By contrast, many companies are tempted to share multiple paths or options. For example, it may be *true* that there are 4 ways to manage a particular process in your CRM, but that doesn't mean your new hire needs to know that right away. Identify your company's preferred approach to a process or activity, let the learner master it, then come back to revisit alternatives later.

3) 10-15% Increases in Complexity The last tip is arguably the most important and impacts both the what + how of learning experience delivery. Learning science + research encourages us to break down complex topics or skills into smaller, simpler pieces. Instead of training a process/system/call flow with 10 pieces and then asking learners to give it a try (like companies often do when they transition new hires straight from 2-3 weeks of training to live calls with customers), it's better to break down those 10 pieces apart. Start with 3 - prove mastery - add a couple more - prove mastery - and so on. 10-15% increments in complexity can occur by designing roles/jobs in tiers that gradually take on more responsibilities. But it can also be achieved through simulations that provide a safe space to practice, make mistakes, and exhibit skills little by little.



What does this look like in practice? Before we recommend a future state learning program concept, it's useful to visualize what corporate learning programs look like today if they don't apply these principles. In the graphic below we observe a few things:

  1. Training is 'front-loaded.' There's lots of knowledge shared, but there are limited-to-no true practice opportunities in the skills prior to engaging with customers.

  2. Through no fault of the company, the customer conversation types (aligned to skills A, B + C below) occur intermittently over time. The associate only gets practice if a customer calls in with that issue. Take a look at Skill B, for example. Since this associate didn't receive this call type frequently, there are almost 2 weeks between occurrences, providing limited exposure and practice in this skill.

  3. There's no repetition of training or practice topics once the learner is in the field. It's a pretty black and white.

What would applying the 3 tips from this article look like in contrast?

  1. Up to 50% of the training program would be made up of practice and simulations (represented by the hollow yellow circles).

  2. The complexity of the simulations + practice would increase incrementally over time, with the final simulations matching the full complexity of what the associate will experience with live customers.

  3. Gaps in exposure/practice are proactively supplemented with simulations to ensure learners keep up their skills.


These principles aren't just conceptual. With the right technology + mindset, your team can begin implementing these in days and weeks. Reach out if you'd like to learn more!

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