You can fix internal skills gaps — but you have to find them first
From customer complaints to repeated injuries, the difference between a well-trained employee and one who isn't can cost your business dearly. Bridging these training gaps is critical to employee and employer success, and identifying them correctly is the first step.
Are tools or equipment at fault? Are processes the problem? Are new products or platforms being used incorrectly? When learning professionals identify whether and where knowledge is lacking, they can not only fill any gaps but also help employees understand how and why training works. And when training works, employees seek it out — good news for both upskilling and engagement.
Talent wants training
Top talent is looking for training to advance their careers. If you don’t provide it, your competition will. “Our latest research found 65% of all employees expect to receive career guidance from their managers and other leaders," says Stacey Force, vice president of ManpowerGroup Global Marketing.
For many companies, training and upskilling existing employees is a better option than trying to hire externally. Manpower’s 2016-2017 Talent Shortage Survey found that 53% of businesses surveyed employ this practice. Current staff may not have the particular skills required for an opening, but they understand the company's culture and practices. There, the training path is easily identified. However, gaps aren't always that clear-cut.
Assessing performance gaps
A performance gap analysis that identifies where knowledge and skills are lacking can be an important part of your larger learning initiatives. Gather as much data as possible, the experts say. Consider employee surveys, customer complaints, and return or refund data. From here, you may be able to identify whether it’s a team issue, or an individual or a category of employees who aren't performing at their best.
This involves conducting a "performance analysis" rather than a "needs analysis," according to Chris Osborn, senior member of the marketing team at AllenComm. For example, if a sales team is underperforming, the manager might ask HR for training. HR brings someone in and everyone feels good, but six months later there’s no improvement. “This is a very common story,” he says; “You did your needs analysis – did everything you were supposed to do, so why didn’t it work? Because you didn’t get to the root cause of the problem.”
A better choice is a performance gap analysis, Osborn says. In the above example, you'd want to examine where sales performance is falling short. What are the highest performing reps are doing that set them apart from the rest of the team? Is it that they have better systems and tools to support what they’re doing? Or do they have better phone skills, negotiation skills, closing skills?
“When you understand the differences, you can identify the specific behaviors that set them apart,” Osborn said. You’re now able to measure behaviors against the rest of the team to identify a specific gap that training can close. “You want to find the exact performance gap – and train directly to those competencies to close the gaps."
Kimberly Devlin, managing director at EdTrek, Inc. agrees. “Repeated errors and employee feedback can point towards skills gaps, but the true signals of gaps become apparent in cause analyses," she said. "Errors may be a symptom, whereas the cause analysis will identify the root of the problem.”
Many businesses look at a problem like an underperforming sales team, try an off-the-shelf solution and are disappointed with the results. Instead of throwing a generic solution at the problem and hoping some of it will stick, “shift your thinking and emphasis to get it done right the first time," Osborn suggests. "Find the root cause of the issue and train directly to it to see the right outcomes.”
This involves a larger look at what you’re trying to achieve, with separate levels of training, Osborn said. "Level 1" might be foundational knowledge — the basics of how to do the work. This is appropriate for new hires, entry level roles, and people moving into a new position. At "Level 2," you bring in training that’s more specific to the industry or the company. This is where you’d start to bring in customized content that addresses any performance gap (like negotiation skills) you’re experiencing. "Level 3" training may be targeted to specific items unique to the organization, like internal services or solutions. You want to deliver subject-matter expertise for your own product lines, customer success stories, benefits of using the product or service — anything that anchors employees to the organization and connects them to your product line.
This setup also can help employers decide whether its better to conduct training in-house or to contract with a third party, Osborn noted. “Ask yourself: Do we have skills and resources to deliver Level 2 or 3 to our employees?” If not, it may make sense to seek outside assistance.
It's also important to proactively look for these gaps before they become problems, Devlin says. “All too often, HR and training departments operate in reactionary mode. But, when you collaborate with business units, forecast needs based on upcoming initiatives and other factors, and then plan learning, the value of training is elevated exponentially.”
She said she believes a proactive approach allows employers to build a framework of learning events in an organized and systematic way. And that framework can support the organization in achieving its goals by providing custom-built structures that provide employees with what they need to excel.
Compare that to operating in reactionary mode: In the best-case scenario, quality learning events are provided, but haphazardly; in the worst-case scenario, training is applied to needs like spackling to cracks and holes, hiding imperfections but doing nothing to establish a sound foundation, Devlin explained.
When to call in reinforcements
When you're looking for your training gaps, an internal analysis can certainly keep up-front expenses in check but both internal and outsourced analyses have their own costs down the road. For example, “What is the cost of biased analysis, finding gaps that match pre-existing solutions?” Devin noted. On the other hand, a third party’s expertise and objectivity can add value in several situations: "when internal resources have limited time or expertise, if a fresh perspective is needed, or the organization wants to draw on proven processes and solutions.”
Whether you’re upskilling current employees for a new role or competency, or trying to bridge a gap in the skills needed for current roles, understanding the specific need is critical to achieving desired outcomes, the experts say. Before you search for solutions, a clear vision of the issue at hand can ensure your efforts result in success for both employees and the company.
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