Why ‘Skills Training’ is a myth

What if:

we’ve all inherited a paradigm in which…

…people are being sent off on ‘skills training’ courses, but are coming back from them without new skills?

The training profession – both in-house and external providers – have long talked about ‘skills training’. As far as the L&D departments are concerned, this is often so they can distinguish between two different types of content they teach:

  1. information about the nuts and bolts of, say, a given product or service the organisation provides
  2. techniques for improving the way people perform particular activities.

The myth

Unfortunately, these seem to have become labelled as ‘knowledge training’ and ‘skills training’. We say unfortunately because it’s created a myth that people learn ‘skills’ on training courses.

Indeed, if you look at the websites of many training companies, their blurb actually says ‘You will learn these skills…’.

But of course, you won’t. Think about it: when you were learning to drive, by the time you got to the end of your first lesson were you a ‘skilled driver’? Hardly.

Despite the cultural myth of ‘skills training’, people don’t learn skills on training courses. We can all gain insights, and learn models and techniques. But gaining ‘skill’ in any of those requires us to practice, does it not? And in most training courses you might expect to be able to practise a new idea once or maybe twice at most. To develop ‘skills’ on a business training course it would probably have to last for many days, or even weeks – which wouldn’t be practical.

But surely everybody already knows this, do they not? So what’s the problem?

The time problem

Unfortunately, this cultural myth has created a sort of elephant in the room: an elephant in Emperor’s New Clothes. As long as we persist with the myth of skills training, people will keep being sent off on training courses with the implicit expectation that they will come back with new skill sets.

But applying new techniques means changing old habits; possibly having to do things in a new way in front of other people. And that can be scary. Not only that, but getting used to any new way of doing things is likely to slow us down for a while. So there can often be a double-whammy working against someone putting their learning into practice.

In fact, it’s worse than that, because not only are they unlikely to be being allowed that extra time, but the need for that time isn’t even being acknowledged. So how likely is it someone’s going to feel OK to say “Er, excuse me, can I have a little more time to do my work for the next week or two?”

And even that doesn’t tell the whole story, because they’ll often go off on this training without anyone to cover their workload. So not only will they not be given more time to practice, they’ll actually have less, because they now have to catch up on the work they weren’t doing when they were in the training room.

Oh, and another thing; if there’s no one to cover their work while they’re being trained, they may be getting distracted by ‘stuff’ that needs to be taken care of back in the workplace. So they’re not entirely present in the training room.

Is it any wonder organisations can often get relatively little value out of the money they chuck at training courses? And if you really want to get yourself and your team into the Sweet Spot, we need to address these issues head on – which seems to require four things of you.

Four things

1. Acknowledge the Skills Training myth

Let’s call this myth out for what it is. It’s doing no one any favours.

2. Identify and validate everything else your people may need

When it comes to improving your team’s ability to deliver, improving skills is only one of the SMARTIED resources your people may need. What else is it going to take? Unless everything’s being put in place, the performance will still be compromised.

3. Establish the ROI

From a financial perspective, how much do you expect those SMARTIED investments to deliver? You should do this whether you already have enough budget to cover the investment yourself, or if you’ll have to get it sanctioned elsewhere. After all, some of those SMARTIED resources may have nothing to do with money. Chances are, one of the resources you may well need is a change to your team’s Authority. Whether that means the introduction of formal policies and procedures, or new job descriptions, your people may need to be able to lay down the law to people more senior than themselves. So you’re probably going to need a robust business case for this.

4. Make the necessary investment in everything you need

Or, to put it another way, go for it.

Only by taking this holistic approach to your team’s professional development can you expect to get where you really want to be for sure.

This is what we mean by ‘setting yourself up to win’.