On the surface, all skills and practices look deceptively easy when performed by an expert.
What often appears ridiculously simple to an outsider requires dedicated and concentrated effort that could span weeks, months or even years.
Skill-building occurs when specific techniques and/or methodologies are reduced to habit and programmed into the brain so that the responses of the person performing a specific set of skills becomes automatic.
Training of all kinds require individuals to immediately practice what is learned or taught. Applying skills is a habit, that is, a complex set of practices. And practices can always be learned.
Practices are usually simple. A six-year-old has no difficulty in understanding a piano practice. But, to slightly paraphrase Peter F. Drucker, "practices are always exceedingly hard to do well."
Drucker taught us practices have to be acquired, as we all learn the multiplication table; that is, “repeated ad nauseam until '6×6 = 36' has become an unthinking, conditioned reflex and an ingrained habit."
In short, practices must be learned by practicing and practicing and practicing again.
A gentle reminder: Persistence is an admirable quality. Don't assume practice makes perfect. Practice creates permanence, not necessarily perfection. To achieve perfection, you must practice the right things in the right way.
If you’re a pocket billiards enthusiast, you’ll relate to this story. Several years ago, a co-worker purchased a top-of-the-line (Gold Crown III) pool table, a dozen or more instructional DVDs, how-to books and a computer game that enabled him to simulate playing a world-class professional.
He viewed, read, studied and carefully practiced what he learned from all these learning tools. Pocket billiards (i.e., pool) is a game that can be played equally well alone or competitively.
Without doubt, he learned the fundamentals and his level of play improved, but most of his playing was confined to nightly practice sessions in his basement.
Then, one day, he ventured into a New York City billiard establishment populated by the world’s top-ranked professionals. Men and women of all ages were competing in tournaments.
Others were actively engaged in professionally taught clinics designed to improve playing ability.
Still others (prosperous Wall Street types) were busily engaged in one-on-one instructional sessions with world-champions-turned instructors.
In one defining moment, he realized he was an inferior player compared to those he viewed as worthy opponents.
Indeed, he was amazed at the playing ability of those fortunate enough to afford weekly private lessons.
Prior to witnessing all of this, he thought he'd progressed and was satisfied with the skills he possessed.
Now he knew he had wasted a great deal of time and wasn't equipped to play competitively against those he would have thought (in his basement, practicing alone) he would unmercifully defeat.
But that’s not all; He also discovered that many of the players were students of the game.
They shared "secrets," best practices and newly acquired knowledge in skill-building subjects such as making recurrent kinds of rail shots, determining the exact path of the cue ball after contacting the object ball and using the overhead billiard lighting fixture to determine the exact aiming point.
None of these "finer points" could to be found in any of the printed or visual materials purchased by our friend.
He secured an expensive two-hour lesson from the, then, 12th-ranked player in the world who was an accomplished instructor and a marvelous diagnostician.
His verdict? Our friend’s skills were deficient (he stunk) and in the process of self-instruction, developed many bad habits.
He jumped up too quickly and thereby deflected his aim (he missed a lot). He hadn't acquired the habit of a full backstroke accompanied by a complete follow-through (his stroke was choppy).
The champion player and expert instructor also said, "You understand very little about the basic skill sets that must be mastered before anything else. Self-development is great and all learning relies on self-development, but you need the watchful eye of an instructor to make sure you're practicing the right things and, most importantly, there’s no slippage."
The world champion instructor then proceeded to illustrate a systematic, well-organized series of exercises that required daily doing to achieve learning goals.
Our friend, an Ivy-leaguer all the way, decided to engage his instructor for a series of expensive lessions.
The instructor corrected, mentored, coached, demonstrated and provided take-home exercises related to each instructional session.
At the beginning of every new session, the instructor required our friend to demonstrate, to his satisfaction, that he'd mastered the assigned practices.
As predicted, slippage always occurred and more coaching was required to make the lessons taught become firmly ingrained habits.
Initially, our friend was near-certain he could master the game. Why? Because he thought he had the natural attributes reflected by past academic achievements.
Granted, he had promise, that is, potential. But the key to success in pocket billiards, as in any skill-based sport and most other worthy pursuits, is practice.
Learning theorists have a fancy name for practice: They call it behavioral learning. Behavioral learning focuses on drill, rote, routine and repetition.
Skill-building requires training. Training requires a big dose of behavioral learning.
Indeed, after much reflection, our friend realized the reason individual promise was so rarely converted into performance was the absence of practice. In short, everything degenerates into hard work.
He noted that a lot of the Wall Street types, obviously quite brilliant, never learned the fundamental lesson that brilliance was usually irrelevant in terms of behavioral learning development. (In other words, they didn't practice).
He also observed that "the less brilliant" through practice achieved uncommon performance, that is, they played brilliantly. This should be a surprise-free observation. But it never is.
Many people stay in school until they are adults. In many universities, college students learn book subjects. All that can be measured is how well he/she learns, rather than how well he/she performs.
Promise of excellence is not necessarily correlated with workplace achievement.
Now back to our friend. Finally, he understood—in very practical terms—what learning experts have been claiming for decades: the achievement of sophisticated skills are relentless taskmasters.
Skill-building demands from the individual a high level of commitment, immense concentration and continual practice with each ascending plateau.
Seasoned performers in any sophisticated skill realize they grow according to the levels of achievement attained once they reach a certain stage. They understand that learning really begins anew with each addition to the repertoire.
This sense of incessant achievement and reinforcement through the self-discipline of practice is perhaps the real secret of motivation.
This story is given in such detail because it illustrates three easily forgotten learning essentials: 1) there is a difference between training and education; 2.) training requires instructor expertise and; 3.) continuous learning and knowledge sharing are an integral part of the training process.
Training, unlike education, requires coaching, mentoring, performance consulting and "learn-by-doing" activities.
Simply put, the difference between education and training is like the difference between taking a music appreciation course and spending years learning how to play a musical instrument.
Many of today’s "training courses"—whether in e-learning form, instructor-led or a mixture of instructional methodologies—are not really training courses, they're lecture and reading programs. The development process will always have disastrous results if the role of behavioral learning is neglected.
Training requires drill, repetition and constant feedback. Most good teachers/lecturers are brilliant synthesizers who are capable of organizing a complex subject into a meaningful pattern; They're also capable of engrossing their audience with dramatic wit and sparkling examples.
The lecture method is a valid technique in the hands of skilled practitioners. But the lecture method is at best only a preparation for learning and is not learning itself.
In too many instances the information goes from the instructor's mouth into the employee's notebook without going into his/her head. Similarly, reading is not the same thing as doing.
Stated differently, teaching provides information. But information has to be successfully applied in order to become knowledge.
Action learning, today's newest term for training, rests on the old Chinese proverb: "I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand." Training requires doing. Yet there is "watch out" associated with learning from practical experience or just doing.
If practicing a craft with 30 years of professional experience essentially involves doing the same thing over and over, it probably means that the person has never gone beyond the behavioral dimension of learning.
Said Drucker, "There is a difference between 30 years experience and one year's experience 30 times."
Learning theorists have a fancy term for the component of learning that spurs learning to a higher level. It's called "cognitive learning." Cognitive learning supplies the role of vision in the development process.
In effect, it incorporates insights into behavioral practice, thereby distinguishing the master professional from the pedestrian performer.
The key point: Many so-called training programs are really "education" programs.
Skill in applying the principles of pocket billiards requires the services of a "live instructor."
For example, knowing where to strike the cue ball doesn't mean students actually strike the cue ball at the designated point.
The "mechanics" of aiming—striking the cue ball at its exact center and dozens of other critical-to-success factors—must be mastered to successfully apply theoretical knowledge.
Many believe (beginners) they're striking the cue ball at its exact center. Chances are they aren't. They're usually too much to the left or too much to the right. They need the watchful eye of an instructor to make needed corrections over and over again.
Our point? Getting an "A" in a web-based training program because of demonstrated oral and written master is next to meaningless if the program doesn't include the required skill building, that is, to be able to put into practice what is learned.
Slippage in learned skills almost always occurs when first learning a new subject.
If the subject is important—whether it be in safety management, quality management, project management or collecting and analyzing web data—the learning program must constantly diagnose "fast forgetting" and reinforce what was previously taught.
Real skill acquisition, after all is said and done, requires showing, doing, correcting, practicing and customizing. This is best done by real on-site experts.
The need for continuous learning and knowledge sharing, designed for specialists and/or individuals trained to do a given job, is rapidly becoming understood by training and function-specific groups within organizations charged with training their employees (e.g. contact centers training customer service representatives).
Continuous learning doesn't replace formal training. Indeed, continuous learning is different than formal learning. It aims and satisfies different needs.
Any course—whether is it a 3-day seminar in a special skill or an "advanced" 8-week management development program—has to fit the specific skill enhancement needs of the career professional or individual manager.
Said Drucker, "Continuous learning satisifies the need of the employee to contribute what he/she has learned improving their own performance to the improvement of his/her fellow workers' performance..."
Translated, this is the essence of what is meant by a learning organization. Today, knowledge management gurus call Drucker's crisp observation "creating a community of practice, internal knowledge transfer, sharing work experiences and internal best practices."
Said Drucker, "The very fact that the knowledge worker, to be effective, has to be specialized creates a need for continuous exposure to the experiences, problems and needs of others and in turn for a continuous contribution of knowledge and information. Whether the knowledge work be accounting or market research, planning or chemical engineering, the work group has to be seen and has to see itself as a learning group..."
The billiard parlor utilized the teaching services of many top-notch instructors and individual instructors didn't share their teaching methods with other instructors. But students, eager to win tournaments, asked other instructors and their students specific questions related to improving their own performance.
Students of the game happily shared "best kept secrets" with others about solving specific playing problems.
Just as Drucker said, "Continuous exposure to the experiences, problems and solutions of others" produced remarkable gains in the performance capacity of most players/students affiliated with the billiard parlor.
In all likelihood, the management of this billiard establishment did little to create a "learning group." But, at least, they didn't discourage its emergence.
Internal training organizations would be well advised to create formal and informal online learning groups in subjects such as project planning, scheduling and control, maintenance management, safety management, integrated supply chain management, quality management and other formal methodologies requiring continuing improvement in employee skills and knowledge.
Without doubt, "live" instructor-led training is growing by leaps and bounds despite the increased availability of on-demand learning programs.
Live instruction thrives in a digital world. The appeal of attending live instructor-led programs has multiple benefits including the exclusivity of learning from one's peers.
Continuous learning–whether formal or informal–must be an organized activity. It doesn't happen automatically. Sharing internal best practices (especially in global organizations) inevitably leads to both individual and organizational productivity improvement.
A Special Note on Digital-Led Learning
With respect to learning methods, organizations are moving away from traditional classroom instruction and adopting digital approaches.
Everything discussed in this article-including the need for constant mentoring, coaching and correcting-can be obtained with today’s new digital learning technologies.
Attend our four non- consecutive day virtual conference (March 9, 16, 23 & 30) and learn directly Catherine Curtis, Global Technical Learning, Microsoft…Detlef Hold - Head of Digital Learning - Roche & a virtual “Who’s Who” in the field of digital learning.
Please note: That all fields marked with an asterisk (*) are required.