Why Onboarding Must Be More Than Orientation: Focusing on 21st-Century Skills Boosts Employee Productivity

Onboarding new employees typically focuses on HR topics, such as health benefits and company policies. Products and services also may be part of orientation as a way to establish a basic knowledge of what the company offers. Rarely, though, does onboarding address the skills that would make new employees more productive more quickly — which is a missed opportunity.

Given the great need to address the skills gap among new employees, corporate learning and development (L&D) has an opportunity to rethink onboarding. More holistic onboarding provides great benefit, provided that it addresses the skills gap present in so many employees — in particular, the newest workforce entrants.

For years, employers have faced a troubling lack of preparedness among recent graduates. Even new employees with four-year degrees may be unprepared to contribute in the workplace. If not addressed, skills gaps can lead to incompetence. This observation is not meant to be judgmental; rather, it speaks to the fact that new workforce entrants have not been equipped with both job-specific skills and broader competencies to help them excel in the technology-enabled workplace.

As a recent Wall Street Journal article observed, “Automation and outsourcing have stripped many of the rote tasks from entry-level positions, so companies are reimagining the jobs they’re offer to the Class of 2019. [New workforce entrants] will likely be expected to operate on a more sophisticated level than graduates of the past.” For corporate L&D, this problem is an one to address quickly and efficiently.

“Real” Knowledge and Skills Acquisition

The problem of preparedness among new workforce entrants goes beyond communication differences or difficulty adapting to workplace norms. Gaps in knowledge and skills may reflect how students approach learning. In college, many students rely on “cramming” sessions to pass an examination. While that approach may suffice for short-term memory (and earning a passing grade), it does little to build long-term memory and real knowledge acquisition. A better way to retain learning, researchers say, is with a combination of testing (especially self-testing) and studying with formative assessments can improve learning.

More effective and efficient learning is essential in today’s fast-paced business environment. More than ever, 21st-century skills — communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking — are quickly becoming the differentiators among employees. More recently, experts have also acknowledged psychomotor skills (both gross motor and fine) for their ability to enhance each person’s contribution to the 21st century workplace. These skills elevate the role of humans, particularly to take on more complex jobs as automation and robotics make continued inroads everywhere, including to eliminate some lower-level jobs.

Cramming won’t build these competencies. They require a proven approach to build skills and improve knowledge retention, tailored to each individual learner.

Adaptive Learning in L&D

Adaptive learning uses a repeated cycle of questioning (testing), learning or reinforcing material (studying), and assessing the learner’s confidence in what he or she knows — all elements of what researchers suggest will improve outcomes. By using a “questions-first” approach, adaptive learning probes what learners know and have mastered and where they have gaps and need instructional support. Using customized curricula, adaptive learning can reinforce 21st-century skills and impart new knowledge about company-specific products, services and processes.

There are other learning needs in the workplace, as well. From the newest employee to the most experienced, “unconscious incompetence” is a pervasive problem; people believe they have knowledge that they, in fact, do not have. Research suggests that employees can be unconsciously incompetent in as many as 20 to 40 percent of areas critical to their performance. If unaddressed, unconscious incompetence can lead to errors, defects in quality, customer dissatisfaction and even safety issues.

Unconscious incompetence impacts everyone, from the new employee who assumes that attending a training session means he or she knows what to do to the experienced employee who does things the old way or who does not fully understand a new process or technology. The adaptive learning approach is supportive, not punitive, as learners uncover what they do not know and receive the instructional support they need. They become both competent and confident of what they know — in other words, consciously competent.

As we examine the L&D needs of today’s workforce, it’s clear that skills-based onboarding, using an adaptive learning approach, will help new employees become more productive more quickly. Then, as they move forward from day one, they’ll be more engaged and increase their contribution to achieving the company’s goals.

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