What it takes to drive effective design for complex skills in the workplace (The practice)

Mirjam Neelen

On Monday, in ‘the theory’ part of this blog, I discussed what complex skills are and what it takes to design effectively for them.

To reiterate, the reason why the discussion around complex skills is important in my opinion, is because when we talk about ‘upskilling’ and/or ‘reskilling’ in organisations, both ‘business stakeholders’ and L&D people often overlook and/or misunderstand what a skill – in particular a complex skill – really is, what it takes for people (‘learners’) to develop them, and as a consequence, what it means to design learning interventions for them that are effective, efficient, and enjoyable. What I mean by that in this case, is that learners can and will transfer what they learned to their job and apply it in a competent and flexible way.

At the Learning Technologies Autumn Forum conference, we had a discussion as a group where we tried to answer the first question, which was:

If we want to do better and drive effective design for complex skills in the workplace, what would it take?

Below you can see some of the answers that we came up with (Thank you to Donald Taylor for his very competent typing and even better chairing 😊!).

The next question was: What do we need to do to get there? Each group sitting together at a table selected one category and started jotting down ideas.

When I looked at the answers from the audience, I realised that I believe there is a sequence to the categories (we didn’t discuss this in the room). Also, I think that some of the categories as outlined on the slide, are most likely sub categories. For example, ‘impact measurement’ can be interpreted as a sub category under ‘stakeholder management’, as I believe that impact measurement plays a major role when it comes to ‘influencing stakeholders’ (through showing evidence). I have also taken out the ‘resources’ category, because I think we would be able to get more resources as soon as we’re able to influence stakeholders and convince them of the need for change. In the table, I have provided the sequence as I see it, put the audience’s ideas in italics and wove my thinking around them.

If we want to do better and drive effective design for complex skills in the workplace, what would it take?  What do we need to do to get there?
Prioritising skills needsI think we need a data-driven process to help us identify skills needs (requires forward thinking; I assume that the audience means that we need to plan for future skills needs proactively, not just react to business requests). We also need a data-driven process to help us to prioritise skills needs. Prioritisation can happen based on alignment with the business strategy and goals, analysis of potential losses vs opportunities as well as criticality vs complexity.   I think prioritising skills needs is not necessarily an L&D responsibility; this could be done through Talent in partnership with the business.
Knowing what ‘good’ looks likeWe could use existing scientific studies as well as business case studies as ‘success stories; examples that demonstrate that desired results were achieved. We would also need to highlight the elements that led to the desired results.   In order to be able to do this, our learning design professionals need to build their knowledge and skills and change their attitude. No one in the audience picked this category, but I think it’s a prerequisite for the next categories (we can’t influence stakeholders and managers if we don’t have the knowledge and skills to drive the change or if we don’t believe in the change ourselves and are willing to change our practice).   Given the reality of the workplace, we usually can’t do the level of analysis required to deeply understand what it takes to develop a complex skill. Therefore, we need to work in more ‘agile ways’, e.g., define a minimal viable product (MVP) based on an initial analysis phase, then start to measure.   We also need to be way more open minded and willing to be wrong so that we focus on improving over time (instead of ‘look what a nice shiny solution we delivered!). The challenge here is that a) business stakeholders can be impatient and b) are incentivised for ‘delivering a solution’, instead of ‘demonstrating impact’. Be aware of this!

To sum it up, learning designers need knowledge and skills on complex skills and how to design for them to find good examples and explain them to stakeholders, and of course in order to design better themselves!    
Stakeholder management & direct line managers’ supportImpact measurement should be key here. However, stakeholders are often NOT rewarded based on impact. There is still a lot of focus on ‘efficiency’ and ‘productivity’ (‘completed, yay!’). I think we need to get way better at keeping front-and-center WHY these complex skills are critical for what stakeholders are trying to achieve.   Then we need to:

Drive stakeholder conversations, e.g,.
Convince the organisation of the evidence base behind this way of designing
Get to the why
Be a ‘marketer’ for what can be done and why (value)
Demonstrate risk of ‘no action’
Align message to company’s strategy and mission
Consider ‘what are we missing’? if they don’t see the value
– Joined up design, delivery, and implementation (from the start!)
– Impact measurement to identify and communicate success  
Direct line management supportOf course, managers are ‘stakeholders’ as well. However, my thinking here is that we first need to convince more senior stakeholders and sponsors of the need to change. I might be wrong. Perhaps we could also influence direct line managers first so that they can be our ‘change whisperers’…?   In any case, we need to:
Ask managers what their issues are
Understand managers’ priorities and how the complex skills issue relates to them
Managers need to be informed, educated, and enthused
Involve managers throughout solutions design (co-creation); e.g., ask them to create worked / modelling examples to that they’re invested in the solution, implementation, and evaluation
Show managers examples of benefits and success
Help managers to make the ‘learning idea’ their own
Demonstrate objective measures of criticality to the business
Demonstrate the impact of failure
Manage managers and other stakeholders’ expectations
Do analysis to get a picture of status quo and create a realistic change agenda
Identify role models to emulate
Impact measurement to identify and communicate success  

Of course, this is only an initial collection ‘things to consider’ in order to drive the change. To me the overall need for change is crystal clear. If our organisations claim that ‘skills’ are critical (the new trend is ‘the skills-based organisation’, after all), then we better understand what a skill actually is. Next time, when your stakeholders mention a particular skill need, drill down to understand what it means in the context of work, and I can assure you that most of the time, you’ll be dealing with a complex skill.

It is also crystal clear to me that ‘upskilling learning designers’ is critical here, because when we ourselves better understand what a complex skill is, what it takes for people to develop them, and what it takes to design effectively for them, we will be better at influencing all the categories above.

Designing for complex skills is a bit of a … complex skill. So we better get started!


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