Sales in the specialty widgets department have dropped at Acme Widgets. While a steady stream of shoppers enters the store looking to satisfy their specialized needs, they are purchasing fewer high-end and customized widgets, especially since Acme introduced its revolutionary new wonder widget line.

After examining the data, the company’s executives conclude that their associates have a skills gap. They call their training partner and ask for a more robust product and sales training initiative tailored to wonder widgets. The associates take the course and apply it to their jobs, but even then, specialty widget shoppers are leaving the store empty-handed. What went wrong?

When is a skills gap not a skills gap? Probably more often than you think.

Sometimes, it’s not the skill that’s missing but the understanding of how to apply that skill. Other factors might be at play that impact the efficacy of the skill. If you jump immediately to “skills gap,” you may miss underlying issues that continue to hamper your progress.

Determining if It’s a Skills Gap

It’s important to holistically examine each new initiative that enters your training organization. While it’s easy to develop the habit of fulfilling orders, it helps to take a step back and ask a few questions:

  • What evidence is there that this is a skill gap?
  • What business metric makes you think that it’s a skill gap?
  • Have things changed that you may not be considering? Has the store been rearranged, has equipment been moved or has software been updated?
  • Are some employees performing at a higher level than everyone else? Do they have a skills gap?
  • What are top performers doing differently than everyone else, and how can you harvest that difference and pass it along to others?
  • If it weren’t a skills gap, what else could it be?

It’s common to find a high-performing tier of employees in every organization. One way to look at them is that they have taken all their training to heart. Another is that they have the same training as everyone else but have found ways to work around the other issues impacting job performance.

Some people are constrained by the box, while others are not. If that’s the case, pumping more product knowledge or sales skills into your team may not move the needle, but identifying new ways to work within policies and procedures may.

Six Key Factors Impacting an Employee’s Ability to Apply Skills

If you’re having trouble meeting business goals, a gap does exist. But before you can fill it, you must understand it. Here are six critical areas to examine before you assume it’s a gap in skills.

1. Information

Do your employees have ready access to all the relevant data they need in order to apply their skills? In the case of specialty widgets, there’s always going to be a customer who comes in with an unusual problem that requires deeper product knowledge. Can your employees access the information they need to close that sale quickly and easily?

Is it a business priority to sell custom and high-end widgets? Do the associates know their role in driving sales in these categories? Do they have a clear path to selling these categories. or are there obstacles in the way? Do the associates have partners in selling these categories? Is leadership informing them of what they need to do and why they need to do it and then holding them accountable?

2. Resources

Do employees have the right tools and resources available to them? Are they supported by effective information retrieval systems, leadership and other employees when they need help? Or are customers left hanging?

3. Knowledge

Do associates fully understand what the job requires? Have you trained them in the first place, not just with product and sales knowledge but also with the practical tasks of their job? Or have they been over-trained — inundated with too much knowledge they don’t need? Not all knowledge has equal value; what do they really need to know in order to be effective?

4. Capacity

Are employees matched to their jobs appropriately? It’s one thing to understand the skills and another to have the potential and time to apply them.

5. Incentives

Is the employee incentivized to produce the outcome you want, or is the incentive counter to your goals? If a widget salesperson is rewarded for selling high-end wonder widgets and not widgets from other lines, they will focus on wonder widgets, and customers may not be informed of all the options available to them.

6. Motivation

Are the employees’ personal goals aligned with the organization’s goals? Is there a mismatch between individuals and their roles? Is the organizational culture at odds with individual success?

Finding the Missing Link

The barrier to your organization’s success is not always a skills gap. As most L&D professionals know, there are often barriers between individuals and their perceived connection to business results — their ability to resonate with their role. It’s not always about hiring different people or delivering more skills. Just as often, it’s about delivering tools, knowledge and resources that form an inspired connection between the individual and the organization’s goals.

There’s a lot of talk about building “the workforce of the future.” If you’ve been around long enough, you know that building the future workforce is an evolutionary process. It helps to step back, see the big-picture view and look beyond skills gaps to make sure you’ve built the very best “workforce of today” that you can. After all, that workforce is the foundation for tomorrow’s. And you want that foundation to be solid.