Most companies use traditional courses or videos as their main engine for developing employee skills. But they struggle to link training with improved performance measures. Shifting the focus from general competency to specific work behaviors and shifting the environment from the classroom to the field will tie learning closer to business results.
Specific behaviors, not general competencies, improve results.
Most companies have identified important competencies for their businesses. And in developing and assessing them, they often divorce them from their practical applications. General courses and videos teach leadership skills, communication, or time management.Then once or twice a year, managers assess their employees in broad terms, such as “uses time well.”
Managers have difficulty pointing to one or a string of work examples that support the assessment or show regular progress toward improvement in one of these areas. As Jac Fitz-enz, CEO of Human Capital Source and Workforce Intelligence notes, these occasional appraisals do little to help employees improve.
Everyone sees this disconnect, but most people just live with it because classes and assessment forms are organized and manageable. Real work is messy, inconsistent, and full of competing priorities and variables.
We learn and practice specific behaviors in the field.
However, we can’t get around the fact that work is where capabilities are supposed to make a difference. What good is it to have high marks on communication skills if customer satisfaction is suffering because proposals are setting the wrong expectation for your deliverables?
You may be assessing employees on “good communication,” but setting appropriate expectations through a clear and thorough proposal document is the skill that makes a difference to your bottom line. So training needs to get specific if it’s going to make a difference. And in most cases, employees will best develop and use such skills if they learn them in the context of their work.
Using work as learning pays off.
Some companies, who’ve already adopted this approach have realized significant benefits. A Corporate Executive Board study found that managers who could assign work tasks that helped employees develop new skills saw a 20% uplift in performance. So we need to define competencies in specific work contexts, assign tasks that help them practice, and use that experience to assess their progress.
How to start training through work.
Shift learning goals to key behaviors.
First, identify the business metrics most important to your success. Then describe the employee behaviors that are most likely to improve those metrics. As in our communications example, perhaps project managers need to write a proposal that includes detailed deliverable content, delivery schedule, feedback process, follow-up activities, etc. If this effort improves customer satisfaction by properly setting expectations at the outset of a project, then that’s a key competency for the team.
Assess learners’ abilities with respect to key behaviors.
Once competencies have been redefined as work behaviors, consider how you can help employees learn these skills. Just as with any development program, people will come to you with different abilities, so you have to assess each one’s starting point. People who have never written a proposal before might benefit from an introductory class or video. But everyone should do the majority of their practice on actual work products.
Assign projects that will help employees grow.
For each action or habit you’ve identified as key to a business objective, think of how it’s most often used in your company. What kinds of projects or what phases of projects require this ability? Which people are typically involved? What kinds of customers? What time of year? Identify one or several tasks that incorporate this key ability. For example, employees need to write proposals during the sales process. They may also write proposals for follow-on work at the end of a project.
Now you can match up people who need to work on the skill with the appropriate task. Provide them with mentorship on that task from someone who already knows how to do it and other appropriate resources. For example, you can post a list of topics that any good proposal should cover. Then have an experienced colleague check the work and offer suggestions for improvement.
This process probably differs little from what you’re probably already doing to distribute work in your team, but if you treat work assignments as the key tool for employee development, then you’re steadily moving your work force toward the habits and actions that move metrics.
Track progress and results.
But you don’t have a development program unless you can track progress. A record of activities and peer assessments will give you show how each person is coming along. This record gives you up-to-date insight into each person’s skillset and gaps. There’s no longer any need for an annual checklist of competencies because at any point, you can produce a list of key behaviors each employee has mastered as well as those yet to be tackled.
Employees get the satisfaction of immediate feedback on their work; they stay motivated by viewing their step-by-step progress and looking ahead to expanding their skillsets. As many experts note, continuous training improves morale and employee satisfaction.
L&D & Managers take on new roles.
When work becomes your training engine, managers necessarily play a larger role in helping their teams progress. For managers who aren’t used to treating work as learning, it’s a habit you can acquire with focus, just like you learned to record project hours or profit/loss numbers.
Learning and development professionals play a huge role in helping set up the key behaviors and associated tasks, assessing employee experience and tracking the results. Employees and mentors can also take more responsibility for acquiring the important skills and self-reporting their activities.
Link learned behaviors with business results.
With hard data showing how employees are using key skills in the field, you can measure associated business metrics and get a sense of how much improvement you’re getting from the program. While it’s very hard to find the ROI of most training programs, when you tightly couple work activities with learning key behaviors, you can get a much better understanding of the benefits of training. You may even discover that some behaviors do not improve business performance and you should focus efforts elsewhere.
Bersin’s latest Global Human Capital Trends report states that businesses are starting to define learning as an “environment” and an “experience” rather than a series of courses. By making work tasks your main training engine, you tighten the connection between skills and performance and ensure that your efforts make a measurable, positive impact on the business.
Pract.us is committed to helping companies pull the value out of work-based learning. See how we can help you guide, manage, and measure learning on the job.