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Posted by on Mar 14, 2016

Finding the Right Solution for Your Learning Need

Finding the Right Solution for Your Learning Need

LearningWhat is the best way to improve a skill or competency? Take a training class, right? It sounds easy. Sign up for a class, learn from a facilitator, meet some new people, and take home some great reading material.

While training is very effective for developing some skills, it may not be the best solution for other areas in which you are trying to cultivate. The right learning solution depends on the skill or competency. For example, is it new or are you trying to hone an existing skill? Do your direct reports have the skills but lack the motivation? Are you trying to learn a technical or non-technical concept? Do you already have the knowledge and just need more practice demonstrating what you learned?

It is important to answer these questions before making decisions about learning methods and programs.

We recently viewed a recorded presentation given by George Mason University’s Dr. Stephen Zaccaro titled “OPM’s Leadership Development Matrix” that addressed this very concept. Research by Dr. Zaccaro and other management experts tells us that formal instruction is great for providing “foundational knowledge or when you are first trying to acquire a skill.” If you are beginning to develop technical competencies related to business acumen (e.g., financial management, technology management), formal coursework is great place to start. For example, you need to understand accounting concepts before you can start to perform accounting tasks.

To advance your skills, create long-lasting learning, and even improve your motivation, integrating multiple learning methods into a formal training program is very effective. Formal instruction can be followed up with time to practice and apply what was learned. Dr. Zaccaro and other management experts call this performing a “stamping in” assignment. Another way to think about “stamping in” is basically “use it or lose it.” Get a good foundation about the concepts and then practice and apply what was learned on the job. Once you are able to apply the skill in basic or routine situations, then try to apply it in a more complex situation or “stretch” assignment.

So, what are other ways to develop competencies? What learning methods can be paired with formal instruction? What competencies are best suited for which learning methods and is there research to support this? These are important questions, especially in light of restricted training budgets, an aging workforce, and a need to do more with less.

When working on an Individual Development Plan (IDP) for you or your employees, think about different learning methods and which ones are best suited for the competencies that need to be developed (see table).

Learning Method Examples of Competencies Best Suited:
Participating in cross-functional action learning projects Depending on the project—creativity and innovation, conflict management, customer service, entrepreneurship
Leading cross-functional action learning projects Team building, partnering
Developmental assignments Depending on the assignment:

navigating multiple agencies (political savvy)

Workshops with role plays Conflict management, political savvy, influencing and negotiating, customer service
Coaching Stress management (resilience), developing others, accountability, executive presence, effective communication, emotional intelligence 
Mentoring Strategic thinking, external awareness, partnering, political savvy, technical competencies such as financial management, human capital management, technology management
Job rotations Building on foundational knowledge related to financial management, human capital management, technology management
Simulations Leveraging diversity, problem solving, decisiveness, influencing and negotiating

Many of the learning methods shown above involve on-the-job experience, which is a great way to practice and develop a skill. Let’s look at a few of these a little more closely:

  • A cross-functional action learning project is when a cross-functional team works together to solve a problem. The type of project will determine which competencies are being developed. For example, a group of people from various departments is tasked with developing a creative solution for a problem facing the organization. In this example, the team members are developing their individual creativity and innovation competencies by brainstorming solutions for the problem. Similarly, leading this type of project will help someone develop their team building and partnering skills.
  • Developmental assignments and job rotations are a great follow-up to formal coursework. These learning methods provide people with opportunities to practice various skills such as strategic thinking, conflict management, political savvy, and financial management. Whether part of a formal job rotation or a temporary assignment, look for opportunities within your area to match developmental opportunities with organizational needs.
  • Mentoring can help to develop various competencies such as political savvy, strategic thinking, and external awareness. Further, depending on the competency to develop and the situation, there are different types of mentoring to consider. A person can be an informal mentor who is helping someone adjust to a new role, or a mentor can be someone who is formally assigned to provide functional expertise. You can also have a “brokering mentor”—a mentor who is well connected with others and can “broker” the connection between two people. As Dr. Zaccaro explained in the OPM presentation, this kind of mentor can introduce you to the people who have the information or experience you are looking to develop. On the other hand, if you want to improve your political savvy, consider finding a mentor who is two organizational levels up from you and can advise you on navigating the political waters.

We’ve just scratched the surface on different types of learning methods outside of a training classroom. Be creative and think of new experiences that can help you improve your skills. Next time you are working on your IDP, or your employee’s development plan, how will you change your approach? What developmental experiences have worked best for you?

Rosanna Dombrowski also contributed to this blog.

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