Building Capability

How to Design Skill Development Programs for Impact


Let’s cut to the chase. You want to know how to create skill development programs that move the performance needle. 

This is your guide to do just that. You’ll also learn just what tools you need to design effective programs, pitfalls to avoid, and the business case for why you should be building skill development programs, like, yesterday.  

How to build skill development programs 

Most skill development programs focus on the titular, singular skill. This view is both too narrow and too broad for us. To have business impact, you should be following this proven process: 

  1. Identify skills and competency levels 
  2. Define competency levels 
  3. Align competencies with performance goals 
  4. Assess skill competency levels 
  5. Develop training programs 
  6. Review performance metrics 
  7. Provide feedback & coach employees 
  8. Embed into performance management 
  9. Reassess for continuous improvement. 

1. Identify skills and add competency levels 

As with all good training initiatives, we need to start with assessment to establish the current state of things. 

We need to understand skills that are currently closest to the money (in proximity to strategy execution) or at risk of extinction in your workforce (i.e. no one uses or possesses these skills). There are a few forms of assessments you can use, depending on your angle. 

  1. Role-based skills assessment: A training needs analysis compares what is required to perform in a job role effectively against the current skill level. Performance reviews also help to ascertain skills in need of development. 
  2. Organisational skills assessment: Skills inventories catalogue existing skills, and can be compared against taxonomies at full maturity. 

For the former, job task analysis also helps break down the specific tasks required in a role, and therefore, the skills required to execute them. Both the former and latter can be bolstered by competency frameworks or models. The aim is to have a priority list of skills to develop. 

Competency ascribes performance indicators to make skills actionable and measurable. Those are organised on a progressive scale, to provide a pathway for career—or in this case, skill—development. 

At a glance, each level of competency should make clear what the standard of performance is. That commonly looks like: 

2. Define performance indicators 

Those aforementioned performance indicators? They should describe the outcome of performance. This offers employees a clear, universal understanding of performance. 

Performance indicators also define what skills need to be developed and the “distance” of the gap to be covered. 

If you’re looking for inspiration, we have a free capability library of over 600 capabilities and 1600 competency levels for you to use as you see fit. These are also available within our Acorn Performance Learning Management System, so you can address competency and skills gaps in the same place development occurs. (We’ll go into more detail later.) 

You want to be prescriptive and concise here—the aim is for performance standards to be universally understood. They should also describe an outcome or objective that is also measurable (move ahead to step four for a full breakdown). Refer to job tasks as well to provide full context. 

3. Align competencies with goals 

Where many training initiatives fall down connecting the performance dots after training has been completed. Setting goals before skills development programs start means you can a) more effectively tailor training to employee needs and b) tangibly address business needs. 

You may choose to include desired results in your job scorecards. Said results can be three to five main outcomes of the role, compared to other responsibilities or required skills, knowledge, and behaviours included. These can and should be aligned with competency to create performance goals.  

For the example role of Developer, that may be: 

Each result would come with its own KPI, to make it a measurable goal.  

4. Assess skill competency levels 

Now we can revisit the way in which Acorn PLMS connects the dots between learning and performance. Acorn enables you to run targeted competency assessments based on the skills you want an individual to develop. These skills are pulled from your own frameworks or our available capability directory (noting that a capability is a combination of skills, knowledge, behaviours, tools, and processes), and will be part of the individual’s job scorecard

Within Acorn, you can design specific questions to assess competency levels or simply have employees and managers evaluate the former’s performance using the defined competencies. The system will then provide a visual analysis of the outcomes, comparing an employee’s current competency against the desired level for performance. 

5. Develop training programs 

Don’t go to all the effort of understanding personal performance needs, only to through generic online skill development courses at employees. The beauty of how Acorn aligns performance and learning is that you can attach content and courses directly to skills or competencies. 

What this gives you is an automated approach to tailored training, which has its own advantages. 

And on the point of content, don’t rely solely on eLearning or online courses. Most learning happens outside your learning solution and on-the-job when employees begin to apply new skills—when the information is needed. Ergo, the most effective skills development programs supplement on-the-job training with online courses. 

So, where Acorn can provide the supplementary theoretical knowledge, you also want to be considering how to flex that knowledge in the workplace. 

6. Review program performance metrics 

This is the step where many solutions will push learning completions as a signifier of a training job well done. While completions are often the goal line, they shouldn’t be the goal itself.  

Metrics like completion rates, assessment scores, participation levels, and time taken to complete courses act as a baseline. They provide a limited understanding of learning impact without any context such as prior knowledge, learning styles, or individual commitments outside the program. They also can’t ascertain real-life application or greater business impacts. For the various skill development courses that may be mandatory, learners might also try to game the system by simply completing content without engaging with it. 

It’s best to supplement fundamental metrics with more comprehensive ones. Consider what leaders want from skills development: 

Then evolve performance metrics to speak in this language.  

7. Complete feedback & coach employees 

The key here is to create a feedback loop through which you can consistently appraise employees and improve the efficacy of training. As a rule of thumb, most training courses offered should end with a survey of some kind. This provides qualitative data on learner satisfaction—which cannot be discounted, given it will correlate with completions. 

However, correlation can be misconstrued as causation, which is why we always recommend digging deep into performance outcomes. 

Acorn’s Momentum feature enables you to automate feedback processes. You can create milestones for a skill development program, such as assessments or performance conversations with managers. Momentum then notifies the relevant stakeholders, e.g. pinging employees when an assessment is due or emailing managers when a review is coming up.  

This helps make feedback BAU and gives managers a record of all performance progress to date. That in turn enables managers to better coach their teams on their specific skills and knowledge gaps, providing ongoing support have the formal skills development program has concluded. 

8. Embed development in performance management 

The previous step flows nicely into this one. Integrating skill development into performance management, so they are essentially one and the same, or at least symbiotic, leads to sustainable organisational development.  

Infographic showing the learning and performance cycle enabled by Acorn PLMS

Any development initiative really only works when there is a purpose to it. In our conversations with clients, we realised that purpose must be performance—yet so few solutions exist out there that link learning and performance. 

All of the steps above should become indistinguishable from performance management processes. That is: 

9. Go again with continuous improvement and reward performance 

If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it a million times: any development cycle should end with re-assessment. For skills development to be truly integrated with performance management, you need to understand what has changed and what’s contributed to that change. 

The feedback you gathered for process improvement should be put to use. Use it to benchmark performance outcomes; can you prove behavioural change? How do performance targets then need to change? If things didn’t work, how do you embrace mistakes and use them as lessons for future improvements? 

Reward mechanisms help make this a learning cycle rather than a one-stop destination. You can motivate employees by: 

The business case for skill development

Yes, people (including us) have been arguing that skills expire quickly for a while now. However, that doesn’t make them totally redundant—you’re still going to eat Easter chocolate, especially because it’ll eventually expire. 

That’s to say you should consider skills development as a continuous part of a larger business puzzle. Developing current skills now without further recourse in future will put you in a tricky spot, particularly with technical skills that may underpin certain roles. Consider how certifications and qualifications change as technology does, for example, digital marketing or design software. 

If it’s not clear, the business case for skills development lies in it being a continuous process. If you have a central learning solution in place like Acorn PLMS, it becomes easier to manage this. Frequent skills assessments and the delivery of learning plans can be almost fully automated, which means that training opportunities are ever-present in front of employees. And if the issue with skills is that they expire, there’s more than one point that can be made about the speed at which they are developed. 

A steady stream of skills required for capability needs means that your organisation is never without necessary technical abilities. That means you can also start to organise and visualise talent in a more accessible way; Josh Bersin notes that the future of work is organised by skills, not jobs. 

And when you treat skills as a key part of organisational development—but not the thing to rest all strategies on—you can offer more tailored and timely learning opportunities. Think of a short course for the latest digital marketing certification, or even a mentor for designers learning the newest software—skills that affect how well employees can do their work, but don’t mean make or break for your organisation at large. 

Where organisations go wrong with skill development 

We said it when we said treat skills as part of organisational development—as soon as you try and build business or even L&D strategy around skills, things start to crumble. 

Again, skills expire and evolve faster than the McKinsey-backed capability. They are much more beholden to technological advancements than the collective strength of a capability (that combines skills, knowledge, behaviour, tools, and processes). It almost goes without saying, then, that focusing on skills alone may negate the knowledge, behaviours, tools, and processes that are equally important to meeting organisational goals. 

When skills are the basis for not only development, but job design and broader talent strategy, you may need implement change every few years. That can lead to unpredictable job responsibilities, change fatigue in your workforce, and a lack of useful historical data to make informed talent decisions. On the flip side, successful capability building operates on a clear understanding of what individuals need which skills to meet performance goals. 

Much of the tech market also doesn’t provide a singular solution for a skills-based learning approach. You may need to integrate a skills aggregator with your LMS, or else blend your talent management platform with your learning system. The more integrations added, the further your data has to travel, and harder reporting becomes—if you can truly prove tangible business impacts from employee skills at all. 

Key takeaways 

Skill development can be a middling learning initiative. That is, it serves no purpose other than to be done—which is the first hurdle to clear. 

All learning initiatives should be linked to a greater business need. Start by: 

  1. Identifying the skills closest to strategy  
  2. Defining performance indicators through competency levels 
  3. Aligning those competencies with goals 
  4. Assessing individual competency levels 
  5. Developing tailored training programs 
  6. Reviewing program performance metrics 
  7. Empowering managers to coach employees 
  8. Embedding development into performance management 
  9. Codifying continuous improvement measures. 

The most important thing to remember is to make this a continuous cycle of skill development. Skip that last step, and you essentially make this a redundant activity given how fast skills expire. 

Want informative L&D content delivered straight to your inbox?


Share this post!

Related Reads on This Topic

Job scorecards and role-based competency frameworks

How to Get Job Scorecards Right with Competency Frameworks  

Discover the secret to writing job scorecards that align employee performance with business outcomes using a competency framework…

skill vs competency vs capability

Skill vs Capability vs Competency: How to Differentiate the Three 

Skill, capability and competency are all important and essential characteristics of an efficient workforce. Learn how the three differ…

encourage developing skills continuously

How Encouraging Your Employees to Continuously Develop Their Skills Builds Organisational Capability

Developing skills continuously builds organisational capability. Learn how to encourage your employees to do it…