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How can “meta-skills” drive business impact and ROI of training?

This article is contributed by Christabel Singh at KnowledgeHut, a fast-growing Ed-Tech company equipping the world’s workforce with the skills of the future via immersive learning. A trusted skills transformation partner to over 500 organizations across 70 countries, KnowledgeHut is the skills solutions provider that organizations and individuals count on to innovate faster and create progress.

Human capital is the most critical asset of any business. In an age of ubiquitous technology, human skills, creativity, and capability form the competitive edge for any organization.

But as automation, AI, and new job models reconfigure the business world, there’s growing concern that job obsolescence and talent shortages will impact businesses. While the number of jobs requiring greater cognitive skills has been increasing, eighty percent of CEOs believe the need for new skills is their most significant business challenge.

Lifelong learning has become accepted as an economic imperative, relevant for businesses, but it is also driving employees. Research shows that opportunities for learning and development have become the second most crucial factor in workplace happiness. We are, after all, a neotenic species—the ultimate learning machines—born with an instinct to learn throughout our lives.

Companies worldwide spend upwards of $370 billion a year to train employees in their skills to improve business performance. But despite the importance of skill-building on organizations’ strategic plans, training often doesn’t have the impact it’s meant to.

Only one-quarter of companies find their training programs improve business performance measurably. Only 12% of employees apply new skills learned in L&D programs to their jobs.

Why are training efforts not yielding results?

Over a decade of training thousands of professionals and executives in various industries and consulting for L&D leaders in hundreds of enterprises, my colleagues and I at KnowledgeHut have observed common problems in how companies go about their training programs. Here are a few:

Lack of strategic focus on outcomes

The big one is a lack of strategic focus on outcomes. Every business leader would find this fundamental—L&D must align with a company’s overall priorities. Yet, research has found that many L&D functions fall short on this aspect. Only 40 percent of companies say that their learning strategy is aligned with business goals.

For 60 percent, then, learning has no explicit connection to the company’s strategic objectives. This is a deep topic deserving its own space, which we’ll delve into separately.

Learning happening for the wrong reasons

Sadly, education is often more about signaling than about acquiring useful job skills. Employees are tempted to signal through continuous professional education (CPE) credits so that they can make a case for a promotion or a career shift for monetary gains. CPEs being an easy metric to track, often L&D has a hand in perpetuating such behavior. It’s a problem of flawed incentives begetting flawed outcomes, feeding back into the first lack of strategic focus on business outcomes.

Learner engagement remains a challenge

Actively engaging the learner is critical for the return on training investment (ROTI) of an enterprise. Yet over half of L&D leaders report that increasing learner engagement was the top challenge for their teams. Research has found that learner engagement is a strong indicator of how effectively the learning is transferring to the workplace as skills and improved performance. This points to the crucial element of psychological investment in the learning that is required of the learner.

Learners hindered by legacy learning habits

Many would be familiar with the following cycle as a default approach towards learning: 

  • Start with enthusiasm
  • Make good early progress
  • Hit a steep learning curve when things are moving too fast
  • Compare yourself to others who are progressing much faster
  • Begin to feel deflated and find excuses to procrastinate
  • Revisit after a while, only to find you’ve forgotten most of it, and you’re back at square one. 

Much of this is subconscious and stems from years of ingrained default attitudes centered around fixed mindset thinking.

Meta-skills can improve the business impact of training

Training can go wrong in many ways, but the most critical failures occur outside of the traditional boundaries of workplace learning in the realm of learner psychology. Well-meaning L&D initiatives can yield little results without the necessary psychological investment from the learner.

Well-meaning L&D initiatives can yield little results without the necessary psychological investment from the learner. 

Looking to the solid body of research over the past couple of decades in behavioral sciences and neuroscience can shed light on how businesses can approach the problem differently. 

Focusing on creating a receptive mindset among knowledge workers before workplace learning can dramatically improve the business impact of enterprise training programs.

To achieve this, organizations must cultivate key meta-skills, which are higher-order skills that enable and empower other skills to develop.

Skills are temporary, but meta-skills are permanent. 

Help employees to “want to learn

While motivating employees appears to be straightforward on the face of it—think carrot and stick—it is something that businesses continually struggle with. 

Employees need the right kind of motivation

71% of executives say that employee engagement is critical to their company’s success. Yet research shows that over 85% of employees are not engaged at the workplace. According to a study on workplace engagement in the U.S, disengaged employees cost organizations around $450-550 billion each year.

Behaviors of engaged and disengaged employees

Go above and beyondHigh absenteeism
Solution-orientedNegative attitude
Shows a passion for learningFocuses on money, fame, praise
Passes along credit but accepts blameAccepts credit but passes along blame
Source: SHRM

It is no surprise then that workplace learning is not transferring to the workplace as skills. To mitigate this, businesses default to a set of assumptions for motivating their workforce built around extrinsic motivators—carrots and sticks. And here is where the mismatch occurs between what science knows and how organizations operate. 

Extrinsic rewards are outdated

Large Stakes and Big Mistakes, a study by Dan Ariely et al., found that greater rewards resulted in better performance when the given tasks required mechanical skills. But wherever cognitive skills were required, however rudimentary those cognitive skills were, a larger reward resulted in worse performances. 

“In eight of the nine tasks we examined across the three experiments, higher incentives led to worse performance.”

D. Ariely et al., Federal Reserve Bank of Boston

The carrot-and-stick rewarding system—what Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us—refers to as ‘if-then’ rewards, thus work well for well-defined simple tasks with a short time horizon. According to Pink, 20th-century extrinsic rewards work, but only in a surprisingly narrow band of circumstances. On the other hand, ‘If-then’ rewards often destroy creativity. 

Extrinsic rewards can backfire (counterintuitive, but true!)

Research by scholars from the London School of Economics looked at 51 studies on pay-for-performance schemes and found that far from encouraging people to strive to reach great heights, performance-related pay often does the opposite and encourages people to work less hard. 

“We find that financial incentives… can result in a negative impact on overall performance.”

Dr. Bernd Irlenbusch, London School of Economics

The science behind these studies suggests that extrinsic rewards reduce an employee’s natural inclination to complete a task and derive pleasure from doing so. But what is at the bottom of this? Why do extrinsic rewards work well for simple tasks with a short time horizon and not for complex tasks with a longer time horizon? 

Rewards, by their very nature, narrow our focus and help us concentrate the mind. But this effect of getting us to focus narrowly takes away from the intended results when it comes to complex tasks. When we focus narrowly, we don’t look expansively, and as the task gets more complicated, we tend to exhaust our motivational energy.

Intrinsic motivation is crucial to workplace learning 

The secret to result-oriented workplace learning and consequently high performance is thus not rewards and punishments. It’s the unseen intrinsic reward—the personal willingness of employees to overcome challenges and perform better. 

Intrinsic motivation occurs when employees act without any obvious external rewards. In Introduction To Psychology: Gateways To Mind And Behaviour, Coon and Mitterer describe this as “a simple enjoyment of the activity, seeing it as an opportunity to explore, learn, and actualize their potential.” It should be a key goal of organizations to provoke and nurture such intrinsic motivation in their workforce. 

“Intrinsic motivation occurs when we act without any obvious external rewards. Employees may even be motivated by the need for self-fulfillment or to enhance their self-esteem.”

Coon et al., Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behaviour

Cultivate intrinsic motivation in the workplace

We all want to be the architects of our own lives and be able to self-direct our destinies. Intrinsic motivation behaviors are meta skillsets that are both teachable and learnable.

Intrinsic motivation behaviors are a meta-skillset that is both teachable and learnable and must be cultivated in the workplace.

Intrinsic motivation behaviors lead to greater health and vitality and a higher probability of fulfillment for the employee, and stronger performance for both company and employee.

Daniel Pink condenses over 50 years of behavioral science into three essential elements—autonomy, mastery, and purpose—that organizations must embrace to cultivate intrinsic motivation behaviors in their workforce. These are briefly presented below:

“We have three innate psychological needs—competence, autonomy, and relatedness. When those needs are satisfied, we’re motivated, productive, and happy.”

Daniel H. Pink, Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us

Give your employees autonomy along with accountability

Autonomy is the urge that we as humans have to direct our own lives. Businesses that give their employees autonomy over what they do, when they do it, and how they do it have outperformed their competitors

Many organizations have found creative ways to incorporate autonomy, helping them stay ahead of the competition. Encouraging autonomy is important and must go hand in hand with accountability. As Pink puts it, control leads to compliance. Autonomy, on the other hand, leads to engagement.

Nurture a mindset of Mastery at the workplace 

Mastery refers to the innate desire to get better at what matters. Giving feedback to employees on what’s important and empowering them to make progress on what matters to the organization fuels intrinsic motivation for employees. 

Designing “Goldilocks tasks”—tasks not too hard nor not too easy for the employee—allows employees to make meaningful progress in their tasks. Too easy tasks prohibit employee growth, whereas the too hard task adds too much complexity and overwhelms the employee, leading to analysis paralysis.

Mastery is a mindset requiring the employee not to aim at perfection but to view their ability as something that can be continually improved. It requires effort, deliberate practice, failure, trial and error, and grit—behaviors that must be ingrained and encouraged in the workplace.

Articulate the ‘big picture’ to employees

Purpose is the yearning to contribute to something greater than oneself. People become disengaged and demotivated at work when they don’t understand or are unable to invest in the “big picture.” 

Employees who believe they are working toward something larger and more important than themselves are often the most hard-working, productive, and engaged. People go the extra mile and stay engaged when they can attach purpose and meaning to their work, says Elizabeth Moss Kanter, Professor at Harvard Business School.

“People can be inspired to meet stretch goals and tackle impossible challenges if they care about the outcome.”

Elizabeth Moss Kanter, Professor, Harvard Business School

But traditional business has not sufficiently prioritized purpose and autonomy, which has led to disengaged learners and unfulfilled workers. What must employers do? Help employees connect to something larger than themselves.

While connecting employees’ personal goals to organizational targets like Objectives-and-Key-Results (OKRs) or Objectives‐Goals‐Standards‐Measures (OGSMs) may be a step towards this end, the real results will come once you get out of mere measurement by numbers and figures and connect work to people and values. 

Purpose maximization should be placed alongside profit maximization as an aspiration and a guiding principle for organizations. Designing goals that use profit to reach this purpose and structuring policies that permit people to pursue purpose on their terms can pay great dividends.

Articulating the purpose and making it tangible can not only win employees’ minds but also their hearts.

Teach employees ‘how to learn’

The jobs of the future will require multiple skillsets, weaving technical skills together with creativity, interpersonal skills, resilience, and adaptability. The most important skill of all will be the ability to diversify one’s skills toolbox. 

While workplace training programs can be great places to learn, they are not necessarily great places to learn “how to learn.” The meta-skill of learning how to learn can prove to be a superpower for both organizations and employees. 

Intelligence, talent, skills: none of these are fixed

Drawing from Carol Dweck’s decades of research on the growth mindset, we know that intelligence is not fixed and talent and skills are not binary—it’s not a case of whether you have it or you don’t, instead of whether you’re willing to work at it. 

Employees who understand that they can get smarter at what they do with some effort are the ones who are more engaged. They put in the time and effort required, and that leads to higher engagement and performance. Knowledge workers who believe that talent and skills are fixed are the ones who are disengaged in the workplace. 

Neuroplasticity increases with deliberate practice 

Recent advances in neuroscience have shown us that the brain is far more malleable than we ever knew. Research on brain plasticity has shown how connectivity between neurons can change with deliberate practice. 

With practice, neural networks grow new connections, strengthen existing ones, and build insulation that speeds the transmission of impulses.

Leverage the two modes of thinking: focussed and diffused

Our brains employ two modes of thinking to tackle any large task: focused and diffused. While much of the learning process occurs during the focused mode of thinking, the diffused mode is equally important to understand and pursue. 

When our minds are free to wander, we shift into a natural mode of thinking – this is when we form connections and subconsciously mull over problems. Although diffuse thinking comes in the guise of a break from focus, our minds are still working. 

While both modes of thinking are equally valuable, the harmony between them creates real value, combining creativity with execution, leading to breakthrough results. It is here that an immersive learning approach that integrates intense periods of active learning with simulations, role-play, and plenty of hands-on learning, coupled with periods of reflection and self-paced learning, can help blend these two modes of thinking seamlessly.

Cultivate a growth mindset in the workplace

Organizations must train leaders, managers, and employees to believe in growth and train them in specific technical and interpersonal skills. A growth mindset workshop would be a good first step in any major training program.

Carol Dweck Two Mindsets

To cultivate a growth mindset in the workplace, it’s essential that organizations present skills as learnable rather than something that certain folks are born with. It is also important for organizations to convey that they value learning and perseverance, not just ready-made genius or talent.

Giving feedback that promotes learning and future success is a key part of cultivating a growth mindset.  

Give your workforce the tools to succeed

Workplace learning is all about how the learning transfers to the workplace as skills. Enabling a receptive mindset among employees and equipping them with the meta-skills to acquire business-critical skills as highly engaged learners can be a game-changer for organizations. 

The necessary psychological investment from learners will drive both learner engagement and the ROI of L&D initiatives. 

Engaged employees are bound to take ownership of their learning and development and add value to any organization. Equipping knowledge workers with the rules that their brains work by and teaching them the meta-skills of wanting to learn and knowing how to learn can dramatically improve learner engagement and, consequently, enterprise training programs’ business impact.

LEARNTech Asia Contributor
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