Are we actually developing skills?

I’ve not had a Q&A post for a while, and in a fascinating conversation recently on Twitter, David Goddin and I started a mini-debate on what L&Ders actually develop. I raised the question that I don’t believe we are actually developing skills, and we are only developing behaviours. My belief in this comes from how L&Ders tend to name their sessions – Feedback Skills, Presentations Skills, Assertiveness Skills. But I don’t believe I’m training skills at all. A skill is something that can be crafted and can be honed and refined. The manual labour trades, the many engineering fields, computing fields, medical fields, health and safety – these are all skills based. Learning how to talk to someone is not.

What ensued was a very intriguing conversation about whether L&Ders are developing skills or not. Is it a skill to be able to run for example? Or is that a learned behaviour? Does it become a skill when you have mastered the behaviour?

L&Ders are mainly focused on developing behaviours needed to make you more effective in the workplace. There are wider questions here about what is L&D for and how do we achieve our goals, but I think this question is intriguing enough to allow to grow some. It won’t make any difference to the delivery of courses, sessions and workshops, but I do think it sorts the serious L&Ders from the have-a-go consultants.

I think it is important for this reason. Semantics is important. People interpret meaning from how you describe something. As a way of marketing my course on Presentation Training, does it make more likely you will attend the training if it is called Effective Presentation Skills, or Effective Presentation Training?

So the Q&A for this week is – are L&Ders truly developing skills or are we fooling ourselves into believing this myth?


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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

9 thoughts on “Are we actually developing skills?”

  1. ahhhh the joy of semantics 🙂

    Using your “Effectives Presentations” as a an example I think whether you are developing knowledge, skills or behaviours is about what is most appropriate for your audience and how you choose to help them develop.

    e.g. Watching Obama present shares knowledge of an expert orator at work, helping an individual manage their nerves/feel more confident is about a behaviour but structuring powerpoint slides is a skill

    If you were to run the workshop for a group of entry level colleagues I would imagine your focus would be on the skill of powerpoint and the basic knowledge of the structure of a presentation. However, should you be running it for a group of senior managers it would be far more about confidence, impact and influence – using knowledge and technique to inform behaviour.

    1. Maybe, then, this is to do with how we inform the future delegates of what they’re about to attend in the description of the course? Will they be developing skills? Behaviours? Knowledge? All have their place and are important to focus on. I just wonder in the titling of courses, how are we helping others to understand the purpose of the session.

  2. Good place to have this discussion Sukh – looking forward to it! Semantics are all about for looking for meaning so I’ve taken that as a starting point… a few definitions :-

    Behaviour = manner of behaving, response to a stimulus
    Skill = special ability, ability acquired by training or manual proficiency
    Knowledge = facts/experience known by a person, familiarity gained by learning/experience
    Learning = knowledge gained by study or instruction
    Training = the process of bringing a person to an agreed standard of proficiency by practice or instruction
    Development = the act or process of growing or developing
    Competence = being capable, ability
    Expertise = special skill, knowledge or judgement
    Mastery = full command or understanding of a subject, outstanding skill or expertise

    So for me I think it’s important to distinguish what a course/programme can achieve and to make this transparent in its title – what is its meaning? If it will make you proficient then call it training. If it will raise knowledge or awareness but not proficiency then say so. If it gives you special ability then call it skills focussed.

    I think given that behaviours take time to be developed it may be the ambition of L&D but in most cases the interventions are knowledge/skills focused. From the position of increased knowledge & skill (awareness) behaviours can then be developed. This is why formal coaching is often structured over a period of weeks/months.

    So are L&Ders truly developing skills? I think that’s a job for the professional and a mirror! Seriously, perhaps such reflection & awareness is an important part of L&D which is missing? Perhaps akin to supervision in therapy, counselling or coaching?

    1. I love the breakdown you’ve presented above, David. It’s a valid way of looking at this topic and making sure we talk about the same thing. I think your last paragraph captures it – are we giving enough time to reflection and awareness in ourselves that we are able to identify what we are doing? And is this then reflected in the development/intervention we use?

    1. When I run a session, the best I hope for is raising awareness and providing insight. Honing that behaviour is up to the individual afterwards. I don’t think that’s the same as them having a skill though. Is being better at Time Management a skill or a learned set of behaviours?

  3. Thanks for this Sukh – a thought provoking question. Perhaps it is where my passion lies that takes me in a slightly different direction.

    The bit that gets me is that whether we call it behaviour or skills – are we actually achieving the change the business wants?

    Yes I agree with comments above that the L&D professional needs to match the requirements of the business and the delegates to provide entry-level behaviour training initially, then develop towards finely honed skill when appropriate.

    My bigger question though, is with the amount of training that just becomes a memory of “yes I did that once, good bacon sandwiches,” are we achieving anything at all? Thankfully with high levels of facilitation and follow-up coaching we can avoid this, but many organisations are still just running classroom training and seeing no resulting change or ROI.

    Whether we call it skills or behaviour, surely the most important thing is that something changes in the workplace.

    Perhaps that’s another Q&A post for the future – dicuss…

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