Your Ultimate Guide to Applying Skills in the Workplace (and Making Them Stick)

Your Ultimate Guide to Applying Skills in the Workplace (and Making Them Stick)

Training to upskill or reskill your employees is a fairly straightforward solution, even when laden with nuance. But when 90% of learned knowledge isforgotten within a week,applying those specific skills correctly in the workplace is nothing short of a tricky task. Left untreated, this forgetting curve could mean skills are applied incorrectly, employees are hired for ill-fitting roles, and productivity, profitability and morale could all take a dive.

Learning how best to apply skills in the workplace starts with identifying the skills your organisation needs, why you need them, and then figuring out how your employees learn best.

What skills do employers want when hiring?

Tertiary training or certification teaches potential recruits a host of skills, both specific to their field and transferable to others. But (and it’s a big but) those skills aren’t universally applicable to all organisations, and neither are all employers looking for the exact same set of skills. This makes the question ‘what skills do employers want when hiring’ a loaded one for a few reasons:

  1. The first and most foremost reason is that every organisation is different, and so while there’ll be a number of baseline skills that all organisations need, there will be just as many that vary.
  2. Secondly, there’ll be specific skills needed in all departments and fields within a single organisation, and some types of skills that are unique to specific job functions and roles.
  3. Thirdly, ‘skills’ is a broad term. There are many different subsets, from hard and soft to technical and transferable skills, many of which can overlap.
  4. Lastly, one must consider how any skills will be applied in the workplace, what issue they are addressing and how they will be learned.

Why you need to know this

Let’s focus on that last point for a moment. It’s one thing to determine the skills you need across your organisation, ones that make a department thrive and ones that an individual must possess to contribute to a good workplace culture in terms of recruitment. But what if you have an employee highlighted for succession who is missing leadership experience? How do you develop skills for existing employees, with existing schedules, priorities and workloads that may not be as flexible as a traditional training course might need? If you don’t consider how they will be learned as much as you do the key skills you require, you might waste time designing training programs that employees are either too busy to devote time to, or must sacrifice productive time for. Not only are you also wasting money doing this, but you’re waning on employee enthusiasm by conveying you don’t understand the day-to-day challenges they face.

Hard skills vs soft skills

When we talk about skills application, what types of skills are we actually talking about? Good old hard and soft skills. You’ve likely heard of them, but you may not be aware of the real importance of their impact or exactly how each is applied in day-to-day work.

Hard skills

Hard skills are so named because they’re teachable, quantifiable and measurable. They’re often defined as the technical skills or knowledge gained throughout one’s education and career. The main identifier for hard skills is that they are necessary to perform a job function; you couldn’t walk off the street and become an astronaut for NASA without years of trying, as one example.

That’s why it’s important to consider the post-training enablement of these skills. Hard skills are the cornerstone of an employee’s skillset; they enable employees to literally get the job done. But as technologies and processes change, so too do the technical skills different job roles need to ultimately achieve business outcomes.

Ergo, you need to be continuously upskilling and reskilling employees—and then reinforcing these skills in the context of the environment in which they’re needed. It’s important to give context in terms of the bigger picture hard skills function in, lest employees view their ever-changing skillset as a sign their organisation doesn’t believe in them and take that skillset elsewhere. 

Venn diagram comparing the technological and industry uses of hard skills with societal and cultural roots of soft skills.

Soft skills

If hard skills are the cornerstone, soft skills are the mortar bringing everything together. Soft skills are not necessarily unique to one job—in fact, they’re personality traits and personal habits that shape how you work alone and with others. Problem solving, time management and resilience are all examples of soft skills.

Soft skills are often referred to as people skills or transferable skills. So, quite literally, they are developed through interaction, practice and feedback—or, in other words, they must be applied to be effectively learned. They are also best learned in the context in which they are need. If you’re teaching customer service skills to your client success managers, then that means you want them to be applying them in the setting of customer service.

You want to this because without people skills, you don’t have a healthy workplace culture. Without a healthy workplace culture, stress, disengagement and pressure thrive,heightening chancesof workplace accidents and sick days by 80% and simultaneously decreasing how attractive your organisation is to external talent andincreasing your rate of turnover. 

The importance of hard & soft skills

While hard skills are required to perform the technical tasks of a job, soft skills shape the work environment. It’s why neither is necessarily more crucial than the other. Like avocado and toast, both are important ingredients on their own—but each makes the other better. And while talking about ‘training’ for people skills is in itself a strange idea, both hard and soft skills are best taught, refined and corrected in the environment in which they’re needed. This helps stop bad habits or misconceptions from forming and enables employees to learn better self-reflection skills in real time in the process, ultimately making the workforce more cohesive and informed.

Providing opportunities for skills application in the workplace

In the 70s and 80s, training was delivered in classrooms via chalkboards, whiteboards and projectors. By the 90s, PCs caused the eLearning market to explode. (Flash, HTML and Google were born in this era.) Today, most new employees entering the workforce will have experienced a blended learning experience: in classrooms, online and even on-the-job. They’re also only likely to have, on average,24 minutes a weekto learn. That’s less than five minutes a day.

Three doughnut charts representing the 10:20:70 model of formal, social and experiential learning in percentages.

On the other hand, the70:20:10model relates that 70% of learning is experiential and happens on the job, 20% comes through social interaction and 10% via formal training programs. If we believe that 90% of learning happens on the job, then you’ll want to help them learn and apply new skills while working. So when it comes to employee training, how can L&D professionals create opportunities for existing and new employees to learn key skills and apply them in the workplace?

Experiential learning

Learning in the flow of work is a newer but increasingly popular L&D phenomenon. It’s aim is to make learning a part of our day-to-day jobs and use theflow of work to drive learning.Consider that 14% of an employee’s day is spent communicating, both formally and informally, and 19% is spent gathering information. Learning in the flow of work takes this and runs with it, recognising that for learning to really happen, it must align with learners’ working lives. Experiential learning:

  • Mitigates thatforgetting curvewe previously mentioned, by empowering critical thinking and problem solving.
  • Provides a psychologically safe learning environment.
  • Increases employee engagement through social learning andactive learning.
  • Can be personalised, making it an appropriate medium for learning pathways.
  • Encourages agility, adaptability and flexibility by applying theory to real-life scenarios with real repercussions.
  • Helps turn failure into lessons faster, because employees are forced to problem solve in real time.

Essentially, learning in the flow of work seeks to make learning an ubiquitous, almost invisible part of the day—and learning from experience is how L&D leaders can provide opportunities for skills application. There are a few approaches to experiential learning. Let’s dive in.

Encourage collaboration

20% of learning is done via social interaction, so creating opportunities for peer-led learning is important. Firstly, the ‘trainer’ in this environment has a nuanced understanding of the skills needed for their job role (including those that may not appear on a job ad). Secondly, articulating how skills and job expectations relate keeps tenured employees abreast of those expectations and validates newly acquired information.

Secondments or job rotations are a more formal route that allow employees to both share their own knowledge and learn first-hand how skills can be transferred to varying tasks. Mentoring, coaching and shadowing are also examples of experiential training that is reliant upon knowledge sharing, though often with delayed skills application.

Additionally, the soft skills that define your workplace culture are reinforced more quickly through peer-to-peer communication—not least because your employees who are ‘on the ground’ best understand the environment.

Refine your workplace culture

Organisations that encourage and prioritise learning are, on average,92% more likely to innovateand 46% more likely to be first to market. But continuous learning, experiential learning, on-the-job training, learning in the flow of work—whatever name you give to it—won’t survive in a hostile environment.

Building a growth mindset in your workforce is the clearest path to achieving both organisational goals and learning objectives. This specifically involves developing soft skills, such as active listening and respectful communication, to facilitate feedback and knowledge sharing. It’s best to drive a culture that doesn’t believe in a ‘right or wrong’ way to complete a task, because this actively encourages employees to think proactively and creatively in the flow of work.

You should also be transparent about the goals of your training efforts with employees, because it shows them the value in their efforts. An added benefit? A thriving, respectful and ever-learning workplace culture is highly attractive in recruitment.

Incorporate microlearning

As the name suggests, microlearning is a short and focused form of training. Microlearning content is:

  • No longer than 7 minutes in length
  • Action-oriented
  • Accessible across multiple devices (so easily accessible)
  • Available in varied media formats.

Microlearning is a handy tool in that it can be a standalone or supplementary form of training. But what makes it particularly useful is that it’s an active form of learning that promotes performing an action to reinforce what is being taught. It’s a response to the lack of agency the traditional mode of teacher-led offers, and negates the disengagement that can come with it.

Self-directed learning enables employees to prioritise both their training and workload by giving them control of how often and when they consume the short, highly focused content. That inherently short format means information overload or fatigue is avoided, and BYOD accessibility means employees can learn at their desks or on their phones at lunch.

As an example, you might create short videos through alearning management systeminternal software. Employees can then refer to these as needed, when an everyday issue arises that they don’t feel skilled to address.

To wrap it up...

We know technical skills are the foundation of your organisation, but transferable, soft skills are the heart. We’ve established that the vast majority of learning is experiential. But perhaps the most crucial piece of information to takeaway is that the key bridging skills gaps and forgetting curves is through reinforcing employee training on-the-job.

Making learning in the flow of work a seamless and standard part of the day

Essentially, learning in the flow of work seeks to make learning an ubiquitous, almost invisible part of the day—and learning from experience is how L&D leaders can provide opportunities for skills application. There are a few approaches to experiential learning. Let’s dive in.

Training to upskill or reskill your employees is a fairly straightforward solution, even when laden with nuance. But when 90% of learned knowledge isforgotten within a week,applying those specific skills correctly in the workplace is nothing short of a tricky task. Left untreated, this forgetting curve could mean skills are applied incorrectly, employees are hired for ill-fitting roles, and productivity, profitability and morale could all take a dive.

Learning how best to apply skills in the workplace starts with identifying the skills your organisation needs, why you need them, and then figuring out how your employees learn best.

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