Published: February 18, 2020

By The Center for Government Innovation

Have you ever had this experience? You go to a co-worker’s desk to collaborate on a project and you see them use a familiar software tool do something amazing that you hadn’t thought of. It happens to me more often that I care to admit. This is most frustrating when I know I was introduced to that function during a past training but didn’t retain and master it.

In this series on change management, we have been working with the ADKAR model. Part of my inability to learn that function referenced above was a problem of Awareness: I didn’t know at the time of the training how relevant that function would become to my work. Desire, or its lack, also played a part: I didn’t see when I could apply it to make my work easier. Then Knowledge: Although the instructor emphasized it would be important, it didn’t stick. As a result, I didn’t incorporate that skill into my Ability.

Ability is different from knowledge

Abandoned blue and white single prop plane in green grass field

Now, not knowing this one small function probably doesn’t significantly affect my overall ability to do my work. However, as a process improvement specialist, I often ask a team to pull up their core software tools for us to explore together. One of the most common insights this provides is that the software offers useful tools that many people simply aren’t using. In those cases, despite having detailed user manuals, tutorials, and power users to provide us all the knowledge we need, our lack of ability might have a significant and long-term effect on the organization. Knowledge is not the same as ability.

Employees who have knowledge about a new process aren’t automatically proficient at achieving the desired results. Even with the best of intention and motivation, if I just depend on my individual knowledge and desire, I might never attain the needed ability level to make a new or changing process successful.

Employees can be reluctant to change

office worker shows reluctance

Experience tells us that typically about one-third of employees in a training program are reluctant, and another third are optimistic and willing to try but uncertain they can really make it happen. Only one-third engage with confidence and master the skill. Ability is the act of successfully “doing,” which is much more than having awareness, desire and knowledge.

A number of barriers keep employees from achieving the “ability” aspect of a change. Some might be psychological. There are complex issues in taking a skill from the classroom to the world of application. Employees who don’t perform well out the gate can exhibit frustrations about successfully attaining the new skill. That co-worker who stops by every day to talk about the newest function she has discovered and how easy it is to use the software isn’t always helpful, either. These influences can make someone wonder “Why should I even try? The old way wasn’t that bad.”

Individual employees have different needs

Add to that the fact that each employee possesses a unique set of physical and intellectual capabilities and preferred way of working. Some have an aptitude for technical skills and want black-and-white rules to follow, while others are more inclined to opportunities where they can be creative and innovative. We hire employees who are unique and diverse, and that makes our overall organization great. However, part of being a wise manager is matching employees with the right responsibilities. Two employees could be similarly motivated but need different assistance to develop ability at the new skill or task.

Helping employees gain ability

Hikers giving each other a helping hand

All this being said, external factors that a manager doesn’t control – such as deadlines and budgets – can be significant barriers. Adequate time and resources to support and cultivate new skills are not always available once a change is under way.

In short, some employees will take to the new expectations and the way work is to be performed, while others will struggle. Providing knowledge through training does not automatically lead to the ability to work in a new way. Developing abilities in a changing environment takes care and feeding long after the “change” has been officially adopted. This could include:

  • Day-to-day involvement by supervisors and managers in a coaching role. This means being a role model for the change and offering one-on-one assistance with the new methods and techniques. This also means embracing mistakes as part of the learning process.
  • Access to co-workers who excel at the new system or process. Each employee develops ability at their own pace. The ability to see what is working for others can be critical to eventually finding a way that works for them.
  • Continuing education and refresher training. Often the finer nuances of a new skill can be appreciated only once the basics are mastered. And just mastering the basics can take time! Training six months or a year after initial adoption can pay big dividends.

Remembering that knowledge does not equal ability and is not the automatic outcome of training is the best place to start. That outcome will take time, and require each employee to move through awareness, desire and knowledge at their own pace to reach ability.

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