Learning Skills: Knowing vs. Doing

learningpyramid

So often knowledge and skills are linked together as a single unit. And while there is certainly a strong link between what we know and what we can do, these terms need to be uncoupled in order to better understand them.

The knowledge we acquire is a direct result of our learning through school, reading books and trade journals, attending training programs and seminars, etc. Staying on top of the latest research and thinking in our professional domain is vital to becoming and remaining successful.

Skills are what we are able to do with this knowledge, yet it doesn’t necessarily follow from our knowledge acquisition alone. Theory and practice are different: just witness fresh college graduates joining the workforce. But it’s not only in newcomers where this shows up since skills, like knowledge, need to be continually developed in order for each of us to stay current.

So how do you learn and improve your skills? Is it wrapped up in training programs promoted as “skills training,” yet delivered for the most part as knowledge transfer?

When looking at how employees are trained, there is often a tendency to focus on knowledge rather than skills. The primary reason is tradition and convenience, and because it is much easier to present knowledge to a large group of people rather than set up conditions under which these people can develop skills through practice.

The amount of money companies spend on training is often a good barometer of economic activity— when companies are growing, they increase spending on training; when they are slowing down, they cut back. Training is the most discretionary of all corporate spending.  And the larger the company, the more likely it is to invest in training and development.

In 2012, according to the Association for Talent Development (formerly ASTD), US companies spent more than $164 billion on training and development. And according to the “2014 Corporate Learning Factbook,” US spending on corporate training grew by 15% over the previous year—the highest growth rate in the previous seven years.

This increase in spending on training is not only associated with growing economic activity, but also due to a skills gap. In fact, more than 70% of surveyed organizations stated this “capabilities gap” is one of their top five challenges.

While knowledge can be fed into the brain to be stored and retrieved as necessary, skills need to be immediately practiced in order for them to be truly learned and retained. Today there is far too little effective skills training in the corporate world.

Skills training needs to be taught differently than knowledge training. The teacher needs to be less the “sage on the stage” and more of a “guide on the side.” Some examples include:

  • Programs and classes that are experiential where students actively practice a skill as a way to truly learn it. A particular skill is demonstrated by the instructor, then immediately practiced by students where they can be corrected as necessary. This can be done outside of the workplace where students can first gain competence along with confidence. Useful for improving public speaking or presentation skills, for example.
  • Executive Coaching is an excellent way to uncover issues or concerns, educate why they are ineffective, and then help change behavior through practicing new skills in the workplace environment. Beginning with the coach’s suggestions on alternative approaches, the client can then try out new behaviors in the workplace. Through reflection and direct feedback with corrections and/or modifications, the client can further refine practice of the new skill. Especially useful for improving communication, conflict negotiation, and increasing overall executive presence.

In their book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, authors Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool discuss what they call “deliberate practice” where the focus is solely on performance and how to improve it. Whether it’s to become a grandmaster chess champion, a concert violinist, a professional golfer or a successful business leader, quality skill development won’t be found in a book, online seminar, or traditional training course. It will come through this deliberate practice.

According to Ericsson and Pool, this deliberate, purposeful practice requires:

  • Getting outside your comfort zone — “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” Neale Donald Walsch
  • Doing it in a focused way with clear goals and a plan for reaching them — “A goal without a plan is just a dream.” Dave Ramsey
  • Finding a way to monitor or measure your progress — “What gets measured gets managed.” Peter Drucker
  • Maintaining your motivation — “People say motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing. That’s why we recommend it daily.” Zig Ziglar

In the same way learning to play the piano requires music theory, it also requires continually putting fingers on the keyboard in order to enable muscle memory, among other things. We have to stop thinking that simply hearing, reading, or watching something will enable us to learn or improve a skill.

Skill development requires going beyond knowing to actually doing. It requires deliberate, focused attention that stretches us just beyond where we’re comfortable. It demands continual monitoring and adjustments. And the motivation to keep you continually moving forward.

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