For years, employers have faced a troubling lack of preparedness among college graduates entering the workforce. Their response was everything from promoting better communication to establishing rules about wearing headphones in the office. Now, it’s apparent that the real issue – one that is true for more than young professionals – is incompetence.

The use of the word “incompetence” is not meant as an insult but merely to recognize a lack of knowledge or experience in particular areas. Incompetence is a two-fold challenge. The first is conscious incompetence, when people are aware of what they don’t know. Young professionals, in particular, can be overwhelmed by how much they don’t know or understand, which makes them unproductive. Although they sometimes appear uninterested, these young professionals may actually be frustrated by how much they don’t know, as well as the fact that they are not being effectively trained and have no idea how to reach out for help.


The second is unconscious incompetence, when people assume that they know something but, in fact, they do not. Ironically, this type of incompetence can set in just as young professionals begin to learn about the company, its products and services, and how to perform their jobs. Training that consists of cramming as much information as possible is not only ineffective in promoting knowledge retention, but it can also trigger a bigger danger: Having completed the training, young professionals (and experienced employees, as well) may incorrectly believe they truly know the information. Instead, they are unconsciously incompetent, which can lead to serious errors, dissatisfied customers and even safety issues.

When Training Does More Harm Than Good

The obvious answer to addressing incompetence is more and better training, but here’s the tricky part: Far too often, training consists of rote memorization of the company handbook or product materials, or it focuses on the basics of HR processes at the expense of more meaningful development. Online training that involves nothing more than putting static material online undermines engagement and does not assess how much learners have truly grasped.

This one-size-fits-none approach compounds the problem for the new hires who are working in jobs far removed from their field of study – e.g., the art history major working for a mortgage lending company. When that disconnect is combined with poor onboarding and inefficient training, performance is low, and turnover at the entry level is high.


The Adaptive Solution: Building Competence and Confidence

More young professionals are entering the workforce, equipping this group with the skills they need requires a proven approach that builds competence and confidence. Adaptive e-learning – a personalized, software-enabled teaching approach – has consistently demonstrated delivered on outcomes for learners at all levels. Adaptive learning is widely deployed in K-12 and post-secondary education; for example, in a study of seven U.S. universities, adaptive learning increased passing and retention rates as well as instructional efficiency. In the corporate space, adaptive learning is still an early-adopter technology, but it’s one that shows significant promise.

Adaptive learning uses a questions-first approach, probing what learners already know, where they have gaps in their knowledge and their confidence in what they know. When gaps are uncovered, the platform provides resources that are personalized to the learner. In addition, adaptive systems ask learners to rate how well they know a piece of content (measuring their confidence) before the correct answer is revealed. This self-assessment data can be used to further adapt and individualize the learning experience. As a result, learners become more proficient and more confident in their knowledge.

Adaptive systems are well suited to a mobile-first approach to training that aligns particularly well with millennials’ expectations for technology in the workplace. Organizations can also pair adaptive learning with the face-to-face interaction of mentorships to reinforce the practical applications of what employees have learned. The result is a blended approach that equips people with both hard and soft skills: the training and knowledge they need to get their work done and the people skills to interact with others.

The advantages of adaptive learning are numerous. At the top of the list for workforce preparation is continual self-assessment of both conscious and unconscious incompetence. Through individualized learning experiences, learners become engaged in a system that adapts to what they know and increases their level of confidence in their mastery. For young professionals, this learning experience may very well be the difference between success and failure.