Skills matter a great deal more at work than knowledge. Skills are the abilities to do things, to put knowledge into practice. As such, they directly impact on performance. There is really only one way to acquire skills and that is through practice, ideally with the aid of specific, timely and relevant feedback. If there is one consistent fault with the training programmes that most organisations provide, it is an over-emphasis on theoretical knowledge and a wholly inadequate provision for practice with feedback. By far the most successful training technique is to provide just the most essential information up-front and then to get the learner practising. You can feed in more ‘nice to know’ information as the learner begins to build confidence.
From the point of view of designing blended solutions, what really makes the most difference is to determine the type of skill that needs developing. To inform your choice of methods, it helps to make the distinction between rule-based tasks and principle-based tasks.
Rule-based tasks are algorithmic and repetitive. As long as you follow the rules, you’ll get the job done to a consistent quality. These are tasks like replacing a punctured tyre, completing a form or operating a cash register. You can teach these tasks using simple instruction – learn the rules, watch me doing it, then have a go yourself.
The trouble is that less and less of the tasks we have to perform at work are rule-based. After all, if they were that algorithmic, it would have been very tempting to get a robot or a computer to do them, or to move them off-shore. More of the work we do in the developed world is heuristic – it requires us to make judgements based on principles. Principles are not black and white – they need to be experienced rather than taught. As we shall see later, with principle-based tasks, we’re much better off using a strategy of guided discovery.
There is another way to analyse skills, which will help us when we come to make decisions about delivery media. This time we’re making a different distinction: when the learner applies this skill, with whom or with what will they be interacting?
Motor skills: In this case the learner is interacting with the physical world; for example, lifting a heavy object, driving a car, using a mouse. While these tasks can sometimes be simulated, as with flying a plane, more often than not we have to provide opportunities for practice with the real object in a realistic situation.
Interpersonal skills: Here the learner is interacting with people, as they would if they were making a sale, providing someone with feedback or making a presentation. Again, interpersonal tasks can be simulated, but no computer can accurately provide feedback on a learner’s performance. We’re going to have to provide opportunities for practice with other people.
Cognitive skills: In this case the learner is interacting with information. Lots of our tasks at work are like this, requiring us to solve problems and make decisions. Examples include business planning, using software, solving quadratic equations, writing reports, or reviewing financial data. Cognitive skills lend themselves more easily to computer-based practice.
Of course, you’re quite likely to find there’s a need for a mix of different skills – rule-based and principle-based, motor, interpersonal and cognitive. This is another powerful reason why blended learning can be so useful – there simply isn’t one method or medium that meets the whole need.
Next up: When the need is to shift attitudes