Practice Transforms Knowledge into Performance

“The best way for a student to get out of difficulty is to go through it.” Aristotle

“My secret is practice.” David Beckham

“We talking about practice. Not a game. We talking about practice, man.” Allen Iverson

There are many, many quotes on the topic of practice. Some are deep and insightful. Others are awkward and humorous. But they all speak to the value of practice when trying to get better at something. It could be playing the piano. It could be ice skating. It could be mastering the Eight Angle Pose in yoga. But if practice is so universally important, why don’t we talk about it more in the workplace?

Practice is critical for new employees who are often inundated with information during onboarding. New knowledge becomes consistent performance through practice. Without hands-on experience, employees may develop shortcuts and bad habits that lead to negative business outcomes. But practice isn’t just for newbies. Your veteran employees need opportunities to practice their skills too. After all, Lebron James may be the GOAT (how can you possibly argue this point?), but he still goes to practice. Knowledge and capability can degrade over time, especially when they aren’t used consistently. Otherwise, Lebron would only show up for games.

Low risk, high impact

Practice offers a safe environment where failure is a learning opportunity. A person can try it again and again and again without risk. Practice should also be purposeful and targeted on specific knowledge and skills required to reach the desired level of performance. And perhaps most importantly, practice provides an opportunity for timely, personal feedback. After all, the players aren’t the only ones who go to practice. The coach is there too.

At Axonify, we know that practice is critical part of learning. To help organizations increase their use of practice, we apply three fundamental principles. Spaced repetition reintroduces important information to an employee over intervals of time to lessen the chance of forgetting. Retrieval practice asks employees to recall and apply their knowledge – rather than just consuming or studying information – to further strengthen their memory. Experiential learning provides employees with targeted, real-world practice experiences based on their specific development needs. Combined, these principles offer a renewed opportunity for meaningful practice in the workplace.

Making room for practice

There is one big difference between athletes and your employees: athletes have a lot more time to dedicate to practice. They may only play 82 games in an entire year or run a race that lasts just 20 seconds. Your employees are expected to perform all day, every day. So how do you fit time for practice into a hectic, results-focused workplace?

Here are 5 ways to provide employees with more opportunities to practice.

1. Ask Questions

Questions are a simple way to introduce practice. They challenge people to recall and quickly apply their knowledge to solve a problem. Not factual questions like “what year was the company founded?” Well-written, application-based questions. Questions can be delivered in conversation, such as during a manager-led team huddle. They can also be scaled via technology and delivered on a recurring basis to drive long-term retention. Continuous question-based learning also provides you with a timely understanding of organizational knowledge and can help you shape additional training efforts.

2. Provide Scenarios

Take questioning to the next level with full scenarios. Actions have consequences. Practice without consequences is inherently limited. Scenarios force employees to acknowledge the results of their actions. They ask employees to synthesize multiple pieces of information in order to make real-world decisions. Similar to questions, scenarios can also be scaled via technology. They can also be presented during meetings and classroom sessions as stories, allowing employees to make choices that take the narrative in different directions in the style of a limited choose your own adventure.

3. Offer On-Demand Labs

Questions and scenarios practice an employee’s ability to recall and apply foundational knowledge. There are also plenty of workplace capabilities that require hands-on practice in a safe, feedback-rich environment. Offer employees scheduled windows of practice time in a dedicated practice lab space. Let employees decide when they want to pop in for some practice or offer managers the chance to schedule their teams to participate. Staff the lab with experienced subject matter experts and the same resources employees will use on the job. Provide additional structure by scripting practice scenarios and feedback recommendations for use in the lab.

4. Involve Customers

You can’t learn how to fly by staying in the simulator. You need to get in a real airplane and get off the ground – with support. Luckily, most job practice doesn’t come with that level of risk and complexity. Similarly, employees need to get in front of customers to practice in full context. For example, a frontline Disney Cast Member does most of their practicing in the operation but with limited risk thanks to their peer trainer and the “Earning My Ears” ribbon plainly displayed on their name tag. Provide a dedicated area for real-world employee practice. Make it clear to customers that they are helping people learn so they can make the decision to engage and don’t become frustrated by small errors.

5. Blend onboarding

Use all of these tactics to improve the onboarding experience for new hires. After all, an employee can’t learn how to do their job on a computer in the back room. They need to actually do the job. An effective onboarding program includes both information delivery with targeted practice and timely coaching. Rather than firehose someone with information before you let them into the operation, blend the experience so pieces of critical information are delivered immediately before hands-on tasks. For example, a new cashier may review the basics of cash handling through an online video and job aid before opening their own drawer and practicing with scripted scenarios. This practice may then expand to include real customers with a trainer’s help. Questions can be used throughout the onboarding program (and beyond) as continued reinforcement to make sure the right information sticks as they transition into their role. This blended approach will not only get the employee into the operation more quickly, but they’ll also be ready to perform on the job at a greater level of capability.

Sam Snead said “Practice puts brains in your muscles.” It sounds a bit odd, but I totally agree. Muscles require consistent exercise to stay strong. The same is true for your employees. Practice is an essential part of moving from newbie to novice to expert. And experts drive results for your business. But practice also critical for maintaining that expertise. Sure, you may never forget how to ride a bike. But bikes haven’t really changed in the past century. The same can’t be said for your business.

Get new hires performing better, faster

Google returns several hundred million results when you search the term “practice quotes.” It seems a lot of smart people attribute their success to one particular thing: practice. We couldn’t agree more. That’s why we’re introducing a tailored onboarding experience that fuses crucial hands-on practice with formal learning into a single, easy-to-follow path for each employee. Check out this video to see Axonify Guided Learning in action.



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.

Let’s work together to drive frontline performance in all the right ways.