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Learning to Adapt

How Theory One Can Make Upskilling Work for Your Organization

Learning to Adapt

It’s easy for business leaders to talk about upskilling their employees to support digital transformation. Too easy. The pandemic revealed that the days of merely talking about upskilling or, worse, truly half-hearted education efforts are numbered. In order to be adaptive, companies must address—quickly and seriously—knowledge and skill gaps that are slowing down or impeding strategy. 

The statistics on corporate training programs, especially digital ones, are disheartening. Each year, billions of dollars are spent on training, but there’s far too little return on this educational investment. Survey after survey of CXOs shows that upskilling is a top priority, but only about a quarter of executives think that their education expenditures significantly improve employees’ performance. At the end of the day, most digital-transformation-related training investments result in little to no improvement.

There are a host of reasons for the poor ROI of transformation-related learning and development dollars, but it all boils down to one fatal flaw: confusing training with learning.

Training programs focus on delivering content—corralling people into classrooms or sitting them in front of a library of material. In training, what matters is the input. Digital training success is measured in easy-to-count metrics, such as how many employees were trained, how many hours of training the average employee endured completed, satisfaction with the training experience, Net Promoter Scores, and the like. Training is attractive for companies that need to upskill workers because of its low price-point, ease of procurement and delivery and simplistic measures.

When you look closer, however, training is a bad investment. How much money has your company spent on digital training resources? How much high-quality content can your teams access today? How much progress have you made? Fact is, delivering content to people is not magical. Just because a person has access or has been told important upskilling information does not mean that they (1) understand it, (2) know how to implement it and (3) recognize situations in which the content should be applied. This gap between content and application is learning.

Learning programs focus on ensuring participants develop new knowledge, skills, behaviors or mindsets. In learning, what matters is the output and success is measured in change in learning outcomes. For digital readiness learning initiatives, outcomes are indicated by very different metrics. By the end of the learning program, do employees know significantly more about transformation-related topics? Do they have increased confidence to implement new ways of working? Is there a quantifiable movement toward growth mindset?

As you can imagine, transformation through learning is much harder than simply offering training. Fortunately, there is a science to getting people to learn. Decades of research in fields such as cognitive science, educational psychology, neuroscience, analytics and machine learning reveal the many facets necessary to create effective learning environments. However, at its simplest, the collective fields of learning sciences can be distilled into a single statement: People will learn when they have the reasonable opportunity and motivation to learn. Renowned Harvard professor Dr. David Perkins called this Theory One, which breaks learning into two components: reasonable opportunity and motivation. 

There are five important aspects of reasonable opportunity:

Clear rationale. Employees need to understand the goals of digital transformation and how their learning contributes to it. Clear rationale is provided through descriptions and examples of the goals for the organization, communication on what knowledge is needed by employees and leaders and what individuals’ learning will do to help the organization move forward.

Relevant content. People learn best from content that is relevant for them. Off-the-shelf digital-readiness programs tend to miss the mark for many employees and leaders, because information is too theoretical, too simplistic, too technical or too generic for the organization to garner implementation insights. Effective learning programs tailor the content to the audience, making it easier and more natural for people to apply the content to their daily work.

Thoughtful practice. An incredible amount of learning happens when employees and leaders put content into practice and reflect on the outcomes. Until people put their knowledge to use, they cannot identify gaps in their understanding and they cannot measure applicability of what they know to specific situations. This means that effective digital learning programs must include significant opportunities—and time—for employees to translate learning into practice. In concrete terms, this looks like content interspersed with practical activities, prompted individual and/or group reflection on results and additional practice until content is mastered. And it means that transformational learning won’t happen in a classroom or via a learning platform alone. 

Informative feedback. A much-overlooked aspect of effective digital upskilling is ensuring that employees and leaders benefit from guidance from experts. Digital transformation is incredibly difficult and there’s no one recipe for success. Seeking input from experts inside and outside the organization, at all levels, is important. People who have gone through these changes themselves or have seen others do it successfully can provide guidance on implementation, offer feedback on practical activities, help transformation efforts run smoothly and avert challenges before they occur. Feedback can be provided by trainers, of course, but also from colleagues, mentors and coaches. Senior leaders, in particular, benefit from informative feedback on ideas and implementation of broad digital-transformation efforts.


The final component of Theory One is motivation; the learning sciences clearly show that opportunity and motivation must work hand in hand. The best rationale, content, practice and feedback don’t matter unless the employees and leaders want to learn. Seniors leaders who want to ensure their employees develop new skills must be proactive and deliberate about ensuring appropriate motivators are in place. There are two major types of motivation:

Strong intrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation arises from within the individual, from the psychological or emotional reward of the activity itself. People do things they find fulfilling or that bring them a sense of accomplishment, growth, happiness or self-worth. 

Intrinsic motivation is essential for creative, complex work—thinking creatively, taking risks, dealing with ambiguity, adapting to new types of work or new ways of working, and persisting after failure—all important components of digital transformation.

In the case of digital upskilling, this often means making significant efforts to inspire employees and help them feel essential to the success of the organization. Leaders need to support digital learning programs in word and deed. The most successful programs begin with the most senior leaders transparently developing their own skills through learning—drinking the champagne first—showing employees that digital upskilling is worth everyone’s time.

All humans have intrinsic motivation… but usually it’s located far outside of the workplace. Intrinsic motivation leads people to improve their tennis game, take up knitting and become expert bird watchers. However, for most employees, intrinsic motivation is very rarely sufficient to engage in rigorous digital learning programs. For that, leaders need to blend intrinsic with extrinsic motivation.

Lighter-touch extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation arises from outside an individual. It comes from the motivation to get a reward or to avoid a punishment. You can think about extrinsic motivators as carrots and sticks. People do things to get tangible, positive rewards, like increased pay, an Employee of the Month award, fringe benefits or a new title. Those are carrots. People will also do things because they fear tangible punishments or negative repercussions. Being passed over for promotion, “written up” for poor behavior, or fired are examples of negative extrinsic motivators. These are sticks.

In digital learning programs, leaders should rely primarily on intrinsic motivation, but align incentives to ensure learning outcomes are achieved. In practice, this can mean making employees and leaders accountable for growing their skills, leveraging assessments to provide facilitative anxiety and aligning skill mastery to promotion pathways.

Are you ready to move from training to learning? Do you seek the kind of upskilling that will enable your employees and organization to be truly adaptive and ready for our unruly future? If you’re motivated to invest wisely in corporate education, Theory One is a smart place to start.   


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