Ongoing Development

How can you help your frontline master new skills faster?

Posted on: April 6, 2021Updated on: April 16, 2024By: JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect

How long does it take someone to master a new skill?

Plenty of people continue to reference Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule. Some now estimate the number to be a much more realistic 6 months. Others have narrowed it down further to as little as 20 hours. So who’s right?

Tennis player

Image credit: IPTL World

The real answer is a very unsatisfying “it depends.” Every person is unique. Even two people who do the same job come into their roles with different backgrounds, educations and experiences. Plus, we have to consider task complexity. Learning how to fly an airplane is very different than learning how to handle a challenging customer service situation. 

The disruption created by the pandemic has accelerated business transformation by a matter of years. Employees are now playing catchup as their organizations rapidly implement new technologies, products and services. This is why executives, analysts and thought leaders are all touting the importance of skills. But how do you help people master new skills when you can’t wait 6 months (yet alone 9 years) for them to reach the desired performance level? 

The Learning and Skills Group recently hosted an online conversation exploring the connection between skills and mastery. David Cooper (ACO Technologies), Donald Taylor (Learning and Performance Institute) and I discussed why organizations must redefine mastery in order to accelerate skill development and meet the needs of the changing workplace.

Here are 5 key factors that emerged from our conversation as critical considerations for building workplace skills faster.

1. Set clear expectations

What does mastery look like in real life?

People cannot perform as expected if they don’t know exactly what they need to do. For example, a person may be a skilled tennis player, but “tennis” isn’t the actual skill. To master the sport, a player must consistently execute a range of related skills, such as footwork, strategy, mindset and various strokes.

Similarly, job skills are often poorly defined with vague terms such as “customer service.” This lack of specificity results in inconsistent training and employee frustration. Instead, you must break down each skill category into specific, observable behaviors. For example, customer service skills in a retail store may include behaviors such as:

  • How to effectively greet a customer
  • How to provide comprehensive answers to customer questions
  • How to engage with an online customer via chat
  • How to solve common customer problems
  • How to proactively identify and resolve a customer concern
  • How to balance customer interaction and efficiency during checkout

Subject matter experts must clarify performance expectations for each behavior. You can then include examples of great performance within employee training so people know exactly what each skill should look like in practice and how they must improve their own performance. You should also specify when consistent execution is required as opposed to tasks with which employees can apply their own unique approaches. This is especially important for safety, compliance and brand-specific skills that include little room for error. 

2. Prioritize ongoing development

When can I focus on learning?

Employees won’t reach mastery through osmosis. Sure, some may get there through on-the-job experience, but they may also leave plenty of avoidable mistakes and upset customers in their wake. A week of tennis lessons will not make you a great player. Likewise, two days of new hire training will not make someone a great employee. Mastery requires dedicated training effort.

Why do we have a global skills gap when we certainly don’t have a content gap. Companies host thousands of courses in their learning management systems. With platforms like Coursera, Skill Share, Masterclass and YouTube, people can learn to do almost anything online, including play tennis courtesy of Serena Williams. The skills gap isn’t the result of a lack of resources. It’s the result of a failure to prioritize learning.

Learning must be easy to access within the flow of work, but ongoing development also must be a high-priority part of everyone’s job. Executives must clearly communicate the importance of skill development throughout the organization. They must then empower managers to dedicate the time and resources needed for employees to focus on learning. HR and L&D must architect a balanced learning ecosystem so employees have the support to solve today’s problems as well as the resources needed to build their skills for the future.

3. Focus on what matters most

Which skills do I really need to master?

It takes a lot of knowledge and skill for your frontline employees to do a great job. However, skill development takes time. If you firehose people with new information and unrealistic expectations, you’re just setting them up to fail. There’s a reason “Mastering the Serve” is the tenth module in Serena Williams’ tennis Masterclass while “Groundstrokes” is module two. People must develop solid foundational skills before they can advance towards overall performance mastery. 

Work with your subject matter experts to prioritize skill requirements, especially for people who are new to their roles. Apply microlearning principles to develop training that focuses on just what people need to know so they can build a skill foundation without getting overwhelmed. Provide on-demand support resources as a crutch so employees have a reliable place to go for help. They may not be able to learn everything at once, but they’ll accelerate their foundational development and move on to more advanced skills more quickly.

4. Reinforce key skills

How do I make sure I’m ready when I need to apply my new skills?

Practice. Practice. Practice. Everyone who seeks to become a world-class performer, whether it’s in athletics, music or chess, understands the importance of practice. It’s just common sense. Unfortunately, we often set common sense aside when it comes to job training. Work is a hectic, overwhelming experience, especially during times of significant change. People can only remember so much information. If they don’t apply what they’ve learned right away, it won’t be there later when they need it.

Reinforcement training is an essential part of modern skill development. Practice must be built into the daily workflow to improve knowledge retention and confidence. Employees don’t have to step away from their work for regular practice. Instead, simple tactics based on learning science principles, such as scenarios that challenge employees to apply a new skill, can be completed in just a few minutes. Digital learning technology can also automatically space out these activities so they’re delivered at just the right time for each employee.

5. Measure skill application

How do you know who has mastered a skill?

Wins are just one part of the measurement puzzle in athletics nowadays. Advanced analytics are used to assess player capability in all facets of a sport. Tennis players leverage data to improve critical skills, such as serve placement to break point conversion, and develop a well-rounded game. 

Data is another important part of the skills story where the workplace has fallen behind other performance disciplines. Today, job skills are often measured subjectively based on limited, inconsistent data, such as self-assessments or 360 evaluations. Performance is judged based solely on results (sales, CSAT, safety incidents, NPS, etc.) without regard for the specific behaviors that led to these outcomes and should therefore be propagated throughout the team. If you really want to know where your strengths and weaknesses are within your organization, you must adopt a robust skills measurement strategy. This means applying advanced data principles and machine learning to correlate employee training to business results

Surveys can tell you if people enjoyed a training activity, can’t tell you much about the real-world impact of learning. You need more data points to establish a real connection. This includes factors such as key performance indicators, learning engagement, content consumption, knowledge growth, behavior change and employee confidence. Partner with your internal data experts and technology partners to find the right data and craft a measurement strategy that helps you proactively address skill gaps at scale.

An organization can only transform as fast as its employees can learn. Therefore, accelerating skill development must be a priority for every HR and L&D team. However, creating a list of important skills and mapping them to the same old courses won’t close the skills gap. First, you must close the opportunity gap by rethinking how you provide training and support as part of a seamless everyday employee experience. This way, no matter what challenge they may face next, people are always working their way towards mastering the knowledge and skills they’ll need to move your business forward. 

Be safe. Be well. Be kind to the frontline.

JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect's Headshot

JD Dillon, Chief Learning Architect

JD Dillon became an expert on frontline training and enablement over two decades working in operations and talent development with dynamic organizations, including Disney, Kaplan and AMC. A respected author and speaker in the workplace learning community, JD also continues to apply his passion for helping frontline employees around the world do their best work every day in his role as Axonify's Chief Learning Architect.

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