How can you make real progress in the skills you need to excel at your job? In this episode of the Mind the Skills Gap podcast, host Stella Collins talks with L&D expert Georgie Cooke about the distinction between knowledge and skills, and why building skills requires consistent, intentional practice, performed in the right environment. With insights that apply on both the personal and institutional level, Collins and Cooke’s discussion will appeal to anyone interested in investing in their own professional development or looking to take their organization’s training solutions to the next level.
- There is a difference between acquiring knowledge and developing skills.
- A good practice environment strikes the right balance between psychological safety and real-world challenges.
- Exposure to failure in small doses will help people take risks with less fear and adopt a growth mind-set.
There is a difference between acquiring knowledge and developing skills.
Learning and development, or L&D, consultants like Georgie Cooke help organizations with skill-building and professional development. Cooke has noticed that many of her clients tend to focus on knowledge acquisition – for example, creating and delivering educational content – rather than skill-building. People assume that if you have the knowledge, the skill to apply it will come automatically, but developing a skill takes practice and time.
“Knowledge needs to be applied, and that requires skills.” (Georgie Cooke)
If you ask people about skills they have developed on their own, such as the ability to play an instrument, they will tell you that proficiency didn’t come from watching a video or following an online course; it came from practice. This is true for professional skills as well.
“It’s not something you can sit down for for 20 minutes and tick off and it’s done.” (Georgie Cooke)
Designing for skill development requires sustained effort. L&D consultants must create not just one digital solution, but a number of solutions that they can deliver over time as learners progress. The core elements of any skills-focused training program are practice and feedback. Ideally, these should happen in environments that simulate real-world situations.
A lot of the work of skill building is self-directed. In addition to feedback, quality practice involves self-reflection: Learners should spend time reviewing their performance and thinking about what they need to do better. An important part of skill building involves supporting this self-directed work, for example, scheduling time for people to regularly reflect on their performance and having conversations about how people can continue the work of building their skills on their own.
A good practice environment strikes the right balance between psychological safety and real-world challenges.
Assessing knowledge is fairly black and white: Either a learner gets the questions about a particular piece of knowledge right or wrong. However, everyone learns and performs skills in their own way, so a learner’s confidence in his or her own ability to progress in the skill he or she is training for is important. Acquiring a skill is not a linear journey. You need to create a learning environment in which learners can stay motivated and confident even if a task goes badly or their approach is different from others’.
Learners also need to practice new skills in “difficult” spaces: high-pressure or distracting environments where things like personality clashes, physical discomfort or stress may threaten to interfere with performance. People need to learn how to focus and ground themselves in the midst of challenging situations. They must also learn to use overlapping skills at the same time.
“Simulate, simulate, simulate.” (Georgie Cooke)
Simulate as much of the complexity of the real world as possible in the training environment. A variety of simulations at different levels of complexity will let you adapt training to each trainee’s non-linear progress. Afterward, continue training and practice in the real world, with holistic strategies like coaching, mentoring or digital reflection tools.
Make sure the practice environment matches a trainee’s current level. Overwhelming people with situations they are not prepared for will hurt their confidence, but a too-safe environment is not ideal either.
Exposure to failure in small doses will help people take risks with less fear and adopt a growth mind-set.
A growth mind-set helps learners focus on improving over time instead of fixating on setbacks or saying, “I did poorly, therefore I am bad at this.” Help learners recognize the growth they’ve already achieved and to see failure as a chance to learn and improve rather than as a negative reflection on themselves. Curiosity is a better motivator for lifelong improvement than the desire for mastery.
“It doesn’t have to be the end of the world, it can actually be quite lighthearted. We can have a laugh.” (Georgie Cooke)
For one client, Cooke interviewed experienced salespeople to collect stories of calls that didn’t go well. She used this “blooper reel” to show that even experienced people don’t learn in a straight line: They have bad calls, but they don’t let that fact make them feel bad about themselves.
Even top-level athletes miss shots in the pressure of the moment. Resiliency – the ability to come back from failure – is an essential part of improving at any skill.
About the Podcast
Georgie Cooke is director and learning experience consultant at Lima Delta, a UK-based learning design agency. Stella Collins is co-founder and chief learning officer of Stellar Labs.