The accessibility of competency management tools has made data about skills gaps more readily available than ever before. Whether that data is delivered in a sleek dashboard from a human capital management (HCM) platform or in a spreadsheet painstakingly compiled by reviewing stacks of performance reviews, organizations can accurately pinpoint enterprise, departmental and role-level skills gaps.

Once they’ve identified gaps, some organizations choose to fill them by bringing in new talent. But recruiting, hiring and onboarding a new employee is a costly solution. It takes time to find a good candidate — if you can find one at all. A better strategy for closing gaps is to invest in employee development and upskill the current workforce.

The journey from “we have a gap” to “we closed the gap,” however, is more than just shopping for some off-the-shelf courses to add to the learning management system (LMS). There is an important step between uncovering needs and delivering a solution, a step that makes or breaks whether the interventions will be effective or not. That step is analysis.

Asking Good Questions

While there are many questions training organizations might ask as they prepare to design learning interventions, there are four that reach the core of the current state and identify opportunities for improvement. Without answers to these questions, the organization risks throwing resources (both money and time) at something that may not actually address the problem.

Analysis Question 1: What Experiences Do Learners Need to Have to Be Ready for This Skill?

If learners need to have some prerequisite learning in order to even be ready to learn the skill, then the learning path must include that prerequisite. As learning leaders, we often make assumptions about what learners know, and we don’t always ensure that they have a strong foundation.

Analysis Question 2: What Current Opportunities Do Employees Have to Learn This Skill?

How is the organization currently handling the training of this skill? Is there formal learning in place to teach it, or are learners expected to learn on the job by observing others? Is there an expectation that they already have these skills, and we’ve never allocated any resources toward training it? This mistake happens frequently with soft skills like time management and conflict resolution, which seem like basic skills all business professionals have.

Analysis Question 3: What Opportunities Do Learners Have to Practice This Skill With Feedback?

This question might look a lot like the second, but there is a difference between being presented with information for the first time (what most organizations call “training”) and receiving dedicated opportunities for practice under the supportive watch of a supervisor or mentor. Even if the organization has formal learning for the skill in place, how is it supporting learners with guided practice?

Analysis Question 4: Who in Our Organization Already Has This Skill?

One of the most critical steps in closing an organizational skills gap is to determine who in the organization doesn’t have the gap and then leverage them. Who are your high performers? Who are your model associates? Who not only has the skill but can teach others?

Creating a Learning Plan

Once the organization has asked itself these four core questions, what should it do with the information? Analysis results might be interesting, but they don’t mean much until they are leveraged into meaningful action. Organizations can use this data to create an effective learning path based on the 70-20-10 blended learning model to optimize acquisition and application of the new skill.

10%: Structured Learning

If our analysis tells us that learners need specific knowledge prior to attempting to learn the skill or that the skill builds on other skills in a continuum of proficiency, we need to ensure that learning paths support that data. For example, we may need to create a short video that provides context for how the skill fits into a process. We may need an e-learning course that conveys the foundational knowledge that is key to mastering the skill. Or, we may want to invest in hands-on labs or workshops where learners watch a demonstration of the skill and then work through guided activities to practice it.

20%: Learning From Others

Let’s say that thanks to our analysis, we know who is proficient at the skill. We can lean on those individuals to satisfy the next 20% of our learning plan. Learners can work with a coach, mentor or supervisor or participate in communities of practice where they sit among colleagues who are already proficient at the skill and absorb the institutional knowledge of their teammates.

While we may be inclined to trust that social learning “will just happen” in the office, on the floor or within a team, we must provide a framework for that learning to take place. As learning and development stakeholders, we can provide structure (e.g., meeting agendas or mentoring playbooks) that drive the conversations and interactions needed for learning.

70%: Learning From Experience

The final, and most powerful, component in the path to close our skill gap is to provide opportunities for intentional practice. If we need learners to have a skill, but the analysis reveals there isn’t an existing framework for intentional practice, then we have to build one … stat. Effective methods include job shadowing, participation in problem-solving sessions and meetings, self-directed learning, taking on increasing responsibility in projects, and special assignments. The key to making these solutions work is providing a structured framework. For example, guides for mentors that provide explicit instructions for supporting learners, observation checklists, scavenger hunts and workbooks can help all parties approach a learning experience more effectively.

When time, money and resources are at stake, we owe it to our businesses and our learners to get training right. Asking these critical questions up front empowers us with the insights we need to design training that directly addresses the gap we are trying to close. Our learners don’t exist in a vacuum, and by asking the right questions, we can deliver solutions that connect to the realities of their ecosystem and enable winning results.