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Content Consumed ≠ Skilled

About a decade or so ago, I started Iyengar Yoga. The goal was to manage stress and anxiety, along with improving my health and flexibility. Well, I stuck with it for seven years until I realised a) my brain has no off switch, and b) I simply do not bend well in any direction. Before I said my last namaste, I decided I wanted to na-master (see what I did there?) the headstand.

I am not sure why this became a goal. Maybe it was to prove my high school gym teacher wrong (I’m looking at you, Mrs. Ward, who called me chicken legs for four years). So, with very non-Zen determination, I launched myself into learning techniques, YouTube videos, and attending workshops. I also practiced in a door frame, kicking up so often I chipped off paint. Eventually, I could stay upright leaning against a wall. Then, I could manage a second or two without propping myself. Finally, I could hold a headstand for a good few minutes without any support. I earned my one party trick and had the bruises to prove it.

But the story here is not about a headstand. It is how I learned to do it, which is through a combination of theory, and more importantly, application. Yet, we provide swaths of digital content, measure and track what people consume, and when they reach a threshold, declare these individuals as skilled. They are not. Have they increased their knowledge? Presumably and hopefully so. But can they perform new skills? Not so fast.

Consider this: which heart surgeon would you trust with a scalpel: One who is well-read and passed all their exams but has never operated, OR, someone who never studied formally, but apprenticed, gradually performing all aspects of heart surgery? I’ll place my aorta in the hands of the latter.

I am not having a go at the many platforms who serve up digital content to learners worldwide. Those are very beneficial gateways to provide access to knowledge on unprecedented scales. Additionally, as AI grows up, those tools will soon be geniuses in predicting and delivering assets at the time of need. Again, very good news. But this is only part of the story.

Content consumption does not equal skills acquisition. It contributes to it, for sure. But measuring what your employees are reading and watching is not a proof point for how skilled they are. It simply tells you where people are spending their time and demonstrated interest in topics. Valuable, yes. Yet, if I read a hundred articles on the theory of relativity, it does not make me an astrophysicist.

So, is this me just arguing about semantics? No. According to the World Economic Forum in 2017, 35% of the skills that workers need — regardless of industry — will have changed by 2020. That not a typo and heads up, we are in 2019. Failure is not an option. Unfortunately, companies who bank on content libraries and platforms to future proof themselves are in for a difficult ride. Now, imagine you are an employee at one of these companies. Gulp.

There is no easy answer here, even though CEOs and CHROs are hoping for one. Sorry to break the news. I know a lot of L&D content folks are probably thinking, “just build in practice opportunities and coaching”. Yes, of course. But the challenge here goes far beyond what technology, content, and learner experience, can solve for. It is also unlikely something one company can solve alone given the depth and breadth of the problem. Maybe a consortium would fast track results? Or perhaps a blockchain for skills will be adopted by all (my inner geek really hopes so)? At the very least, we need to think laterally about the situation.

As for my headstand, I can still do it. I do one every year on my birthday. When I am no longer able, that’s when I’ll call it a day. I plan to put a photo of me in a bikini doing a headstand on my nursing room door (knock on wood I reach that age). I figure when I am drooling my nutrishake and asking the nurse to hit repeat on “Lovecats” by The Cure on my iPod, they will know who I once was. Or, at least the robots caring for me will.