The process called Learning; how can you help your employees learn a new skill?

The process called Learning; how can you help your employees learn a new skill?

Learning is a process.

But what does this ‘learning process’ actually look like and what can you do to help your employees go through this process as smoothly as possible?

In this blogpost I will tell you more about the four stages of learning a new skill and give you examples of what you could do to help your employees get from one stage to the other.

Let’s start with the model.

The ‘Four Stage of Competence’ model describes the four stages a learner goes through. As shown in the image below the learner starts at the ‘Unconscious Incompetence’ stage and, if all goes well, ends up at the ‘Unconscious Competence’ stage.

Four stages of learning a new skill

Image by Wesselien de Groot – Bright Alley. Click on the image to see the larger version.

Example: writing better proposals
Let’s say your employees could improve their proposal writing skills.

Your company has responded to quite some Request for Proposals (RFP’s), but has a hard time winning the bids. Of all the proposals your employees write about 15% of them actually lead to business. A win rate of 15% you would like to see turned into 40% or more. Something that should be possible if your employees had the right skills.

If only they could write winning proposals…

Maybe your employees are mind readers and think it’s a great idea to work on their proposal writing skills as well. These are the four stages they would go through:

  • Stage A: Unconscious Incompetence: The employee doesn’t recognise their own incompetence and the value of the new skill.

    “My win rate is 15% and I think I’m doing a great job. Why would I want to change anything?”

  • Stage B: Conscious Incompetence: The employee finds out they are lacking a skill and sees the value of acquiring it

    “At a seminar I’ve heard that 15% isn’t a high win rate at all, but I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I would love to learn how to get a higher win rate.”

  • Stage C: Conscious Competence: The employee understands and knows how to use the new skill, but demonstrating the skill requires concentration and they still make quite some mistakes. They need to brake down the process into steps and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.

    “I’ve followed a workshop on writing better proposals. Now I understand and know how to write better proposals and get my win rate up. I don’t know the process by hard though and need to look up quite some things when I’m writing the proposal. What was it about the use of visuals again? And how can I convince my colleagues to use the tools we learned about?”

  • Stage D: Unconscious Competence: The employee has had so much practice with the skill that it has become ‘second nature’ and can be performed easily. With minimum efforts they get maximum quality output with very low frequency of errors.

    “Great, my win rate is way up! I’m following the processes I’ve learnt, so I don’t hear about an RFP when it hits my desk, but way before that. Besides that I write proposals that are easy to read and that address all the hot buttons my prospects have. I’m getting so good at it, my manager has asked me to train my new colleagues, so they will understand the process as well.”

Helping your employees get from Stage A to Stage D
Unfortunately, or luckily, not all your employees are mind readers.

Some might never leave Stage A, because they just have no idea they are lacking a skill.

Others might eventually follow a training and reach Stage C, but will hardly use their new skill, resulting in extra training costs but not much of a return on investment.

The main goal should be to get your employees to Stage D, because that’s where they will make a difference. That’s when you can expect results, such as seeing the win rate go up.

So how can you help your employees to go through all four stages and end up at Stage D?

In short you could help them by facilitating three different interventions, as shown in the figure below:

  1. Discovery,
  2. Learning & Practice and
  3. Experience.

Helping your employees get from Stage A to Stage D

Discovery: How to get from A to B?
To get from Stage A to B your employees need to recognise their incompetence and the value of learning a new skill.

Ways they could get informed and discover their incompetence are, for example:

  • Seminars: a speaker explains that a 15% win rate is very low and shows them what a winning proposal looks like.
  • Media: an article in the newspaper explains how successful companies have a win rate of 40% or more.
  • Informal learning: a colleague of another department tells them at the coffee machine how they have improved their win rate.Recognising incompetence and the value of a new skill
  • Performance reviews: their manager asks them why their win rate has been 15% for the past year and gives them the task to improve it.
  • Consultancy: the organisation hires a consultant to benchmark their performance and find out it’s low compared to their competitors.
  • Teaser: a short video or animation, for example at the start of a training or e-learning module, explains why a 15% win rate is something they might want to improve.

Now ask yourself: what kind of intervention would fit within your organisation?

Although this might seem like an easy enough step, it could get tricky. People generally don’t like to hear they need to change something…

The best intervention depends on your organisation, your employees (what would resonate with them?), and of course your budget.

Learning & Practice: How to get from B to C?
To get from Stage B to C your employees need to learn the skill and practice it. Ways they could learn the skill are through, for example:

  • Workshops: following a workshop on how to write winning proposals
  • eLearning: following an eLearning module on writing proposals
  • Tools and job aids: using templates to practice writing proposals
  • Self-study: reading a guide on writing great proposals
  • Informal learning: talking to colleagues and finding out how they write proposals and what they could learn from that
  • Tests: taking a (formative) test and learn from the feedback they get
  • Coaching on-the-job: having experts coach the learners as they attempt to execute the skill and “fade” or pull back as the learners are increasingly able to work independently. Over the course of this cycle, the learners learn to identify and correct mistakes, and to integrate their growing knowledge and skill into a smooth, coordinated performance.

Again, the best (combination of) intervention(s) would depend on your organisation, your employees and your budget. As you can see though, there are lots of ways to get to Stage C.

Experience: How to get from C to D?
Training can help your employees to get from Stage B to C. Still the most important, yet often overlooked step is getting from C to D.

Let’s imagine your employees have followed a brilliant workshop on writing better proposals. They now know what makes a great proposal, what the optimal writing process is and which aspects of the proposal they should pay extra attention to.

They have even practiced writing winning proposals.

In the workshop itself it seemed all very clear and logical, but back at their desk they probably won’t remember every step of that ‘perfect process’ and every important aspect (the ones that make a proposal a winning proposal). They simply cannot memorise everything.

“What was it about the use of visuals again?”

What you could do to help your employees is to provide tools like:

  • Quick Reference Cards (QRC’s): Provide a checklist of the most important aspects or an overview of the steps in the ‘perfect process’.
  • Templates: Provide a Word-template of an ideal structure for a proposal including comments with tips.
  • Expert feedback opportunities: Give your employees the possibility to send their draft proposals to an expert to receive feedback.

Tools like these help your employees to remember what they’ve learnt, making it easier to implement their new knowledge and improve their proposal writing skills.

In the ideal world a workshop in combination with these tools are more than enough to get results. Your employees have all the knowledge they need to go and improve their skills and become experts on the subject.

In the ideal world that is…

In the real world most training fails because people don’t implement what they have learnt.

Often work has piled up while at the workshop, and your employees have heaps of e-mails to answer and deadlines to meet.

“First I’m going to answer these e-mails and finish the proposal I started last week. As quickly as possible, because the client is waiting for it. No time to improve the important aspects though. I’ll only be able to change the headings. If only I would have time to use what I’ve learnt!”

Or they do have the time needed to implement what they’ve learnt and just aren’t motivated or don’t dare to go and use their new knowledge, make mistakes and receive feedback. Or maybe they just have a hard time convincing colleagues to approach proposal writing differently from now on and end up writing proposals like they were used to before the training.

“The workshop was full of great ideas, but where do I start? And how do I convince Peter of a new way of working? Instead of waiting for that RFP to hit our desk and writing everything last minute, like we always do. I’m also sure he won’t appreciate it when I tell ‘Hey, I won’t be using your template anymore, but instead will use my own’. Hmm… maybe I could use his template and just make minor changes…”

Lack of time or motivation can prevent your employees from applying the skills (correctly) and getting that much needed experience. Because only experience leads to ‘unconsciously competent’ employees and that desired higher win rate. only using

Personally I find this the most interesting and challenging step: How to adjust your organisation in such a way that your employees are not only able to use what they’ve learnt, but are actually motivated to do so?

As mentioned in a previous blogpost most important of all is how your organisation facilitates your employees in:

  • Gaining experience
  • Making mistakes, getting feedback and learning from it
  • Expanding and sharing their knowledge and skills

Maybe your organisation has a work environment that nurtures learning. An environment where your employees:

  • Are able to use, improve and share new knowledge and skills
  • Have time for deliberate practice
  • Are allowed to make mistakes
  • Receive useful feedback
  • Dare to share their knowledge with colleagues

If you however find that that ‘win rate’ (or an equivalent expected output) didn’t improve the reason could be that your organisation isn’t optimally nurturing learning.

Would you like some help?
Could you use some help with any of the above interventions (Discovery, Learning & Practice or Experience) to get your employees from Stage A to Stage D?

I would love to (help you) design the whole learning process or evaluate the current interventions. Finding out where the bumps in the road are and implement a solution (or two) to fix them.

A design or solution that will get you those ‘unconsciously competent’ employees, that improved ‘win rate’ and also that ROI on your training (or other interventions).

Want to know more on how I could help you? Contact me for a free consult and we’ll have a chat about it.