It’s an easy mistake to make: The marketing is slick, the platform does everything you can think of and you know you want to implement badging, so you start drawing up plans, aligning your existing content to the new badges, and telling everyone they should download their badges and include them in their email signature so everyone can know they’re a Level 2 Process Improvement Ninja.

Not so fast.

By focusing on the badges and not the underlying competencies, you introduce an accidental toxicity into learning, encouraging learners to pursue badges and not skills. In addition, if skills are not clearly tied to badges, some learners will be turned off by the idea of badging. They may see the process as unnecessary, overly gamified or juvenile.

Skills may lead to badges, but badge acquisition isn’t the goal; it’s the outcome. The goal is learning new skills, developing new competencies and improving job performance. Badges should be signifiers of these attainments but are not, themselves, goals. Think of it this way: If someone has the skills required for a badge but demonstrates them in a way your badge hadn’t previously considered, is that person deficient?

Before you implement your new badging initiative, take a step back and think about how you might design, develop and implement a more robust approach to employee development using competency-based learning.

Design

In developing a competency-based learning program for your organization, the design and architecture of your systems will set the stage for success as you think through the variables, potential issues and workflows that each of your user types will face. In this stage, you need to ask and answer hundreds of questions, from sweeping strategies for messaging and branding to the minutiae of individual experiences.

The good news is that you should recruit other experts, subject matter experts (SMEs) and organizational leaders to identify and decide dozens of decision-points that will arise. The bad news is that decision-by-committee will take time, so you should plan far more time than you think it will take. Here are some questions worth asking:

  • Who will be using the system? What broad categories and specific groupings will you use to define their access and rights?
  • Where will the data live, and how will your employees access them?
  • Which current systems will badging need to integrate with? What current systems will it supplant? What additional systems might you need, now or in the future, to maintain long-term success?
  • How will you roll out the new system? All at once or in a small-scale pilot?
  • What training will you need to provide, and how will you deliver it?
  • Who is going to push back against this system, and why?

After taking the time to answer these questions, craft careful user stories, and work with internal stakeholders that represent both breadth and depth of experience, you can begin designing the framework for your system.

Develop

A key step in developing a competency-based learning system is deciding what learners should know and be able to do and how they’ll demonstrate their learning, whether through demonstration, work product submission, or some other means. Further, it’s of paramount importance that these competencies are aligned to adult learning theory – that they are job-embedded and relevant to learners’ current work or are part of a self-directed learning pathway and not merely assigned for compliance purposes.

The decisions you make during the design process will shape system development in powerful ways. In considering how users will submit or upload their work product, you are committing another group of users to review that work product. How will the system support this workflow? Working and collaborating with internal stakeholders and SMEs played a critical role in asking and answering questions during the design phase, but their expertise will be even more valuable as you actually develop the system. Thinking strategically about who to include and what their role will be is the difference between “a badging initiative” and competency-based learning.

Implement

With the system designed and developed, it’s time to execute. System roll-out is where mistakes and lack of careful planning become evident, but even the most carefully planned project is going to have a few bumps. For competency-based systems specifically, it’s important to consider that you are not only introducing a new workflow (let alone a new technology) but also a new paradigm for understanding professional learning.

One way to think about this dichotomy is to consider the difference between training and learning. Keep in mind, too, that the methods you use to roll out your system need to be consistent with the inherent values of that system. In other words, your competency-based learning roll-out should probably leverage competency-based methodologies for demonstrating proficiency and mastery using the new system. Since this way of thinking will be new, you must also put in place strategic scaffolds for making the cognitive shift and understanding the “what,” “why” and “how” of the new learning environment.

Conclusion

Adam Grant describes successful innovation as talking about new methods in terms of old, familiar methods. Competency-based learning is doing an old thing in a new way: Show me what you know and what you can do (old thing) through this software system that will align your professional goals and deliver new content that is timely and relevant (new way). You can improve your likelihood of success by spending time designing the system well, gathering a breadth and depth of expertise and developing an environment that works for the largest number of people possible, and being strategic about implementation.

If you’d like to dive deep into how to roll out competency-based learning, Dr. Philip Holmes and Greg Garner will be speaking at this year’s Training Industry Conference & Expo (TICE) on this subject.

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