Skills alone are not enough for advancement

I am a very proud father as I type this. Yesterday, my second boy (that's him on the left) attained his Taekwondo black belt, although at his age, he is too young to hold one, so it is the junior black belt for him (called the "poom" belt). So both my sons are now Black Belters, and I can have a bodyguard on both sides when I walk down Orchard Road! Yet, truth be told, I doubt my younger boy will ever rise to become a bodyguard; you see, he is a very sensitive soul. He is so quiet and so gentle, I would not be surprised a non-belted ruffian could scare him easily away. I could see this very clearly when he was sparring with his partners - there were three rounds - and he didn't take much of the offensive in each of these rounds; quite unlike my elder boy in his grading - he was very much the aggressor, and truth be told, rather intimidating. However, timid or not, my younger boy got through his grading and is now a poom belt. I am very proud!

So what's my point? The poom, or black, belts are the recognition of high level of proficiency in the art of kicks and punches. It is a martial art, and is primed for self-defence. Yet, as I see the students in the grading yesterday, I dare say that most of them will probably not be able to defend themselves sufficiently if an unschooled ruffian were to pounce on them. Perhaps only one of the 15 or so who went for the black-tip grading (to qualify for the poom belt) showed behaviours consistent with one who would be a black belt Taekwondo exponent. Which got me thinking - "If I were the chief judge, would I have awarded the poom belt to them or not?" Probably not, which is a good thing that I was not the judge (and that would not have been the case, too, because I stopped Taekwondo training after Green belt, so hey!). Yet, another more important issue is this, "Do you judge them based on their skills or do you judge them on their behaviours, or both?"

Can you build me a Mercedes?

In truth, I don't see that any of these Black Belters will represent Singapore in a Taekwondo competition. They lack the "eye of the tiger", to quote a famous movie. They lack the behavioural traits that accompany Taekwondo champions. But it is not for lack of skills. These proponents have shown that they have the skills, and they were graded on them. Having received the black belt shows that they have demonstrated these skills, and can wield them, if needed. The problem is, they might never be needed. A carpenter who has learnt the skills of using the circular saw, but never sees the need to take the saw out for use, is as good as one who has not learnt it at all. This is very much like our skills-based learning system. The Workforce Development Authority of Singapore (WDA) is the custodian of our national skills certification system, and uses the skills-based (also known as competency-based) framework to manage skills upgrading. One of the advantages of using a competency-based framework is its ability to chunk all learning into bite-sized units, called competency units, which can be managed by assessments. This is quite like the Taekwondo grading system, when the skills are codified and taught in bite-sized fashion, and once the learner has mastered these units, will attend a grading and achieve a higher-coloured belt. So, as the learner continues his/her learning, collecting more competency units along the way, he/she will be able to rise to the level of mastery. Well, that is the theory, at least.

The problem with this system of training is that the whole is very much less than the sum of its parts. Putting all the competencies together has seldom yielded a master. Yes, these are competencies that the master needs to have, yet learning these skills has never once made a person a master. A case in point; if you know how to screw down bolts, you know how to align gears, you know how to wire electrical components, you know how to code a computer system, you know how to join sheet metal together, you know how to lay carpets and leather, then can you build me a Mercedes? No, right? So the reductionist policy of competency-based learning, or any form of learning that deals with standards, has a limited impact in real-work arena.

By WDA's admission, the competency-based learning system has NOT yielded the most basic of outcomes for our workforce skills qualifications (WSQ) - productivity growth. Since productivity is one of Singapore's GDP growth pillars, and the WSQ is its main engine of delivering such growth, the very least that it should achieve is productivity increase of participating companies, don't you think? Unfortunately, this did not happen. According to its own report, only 54.6% of attendee companies reported an increase in productivity last year, considerably lower than the 76.8% in 2013. Almost half of the people who attended WDA's programmes last year, delivered by its service providers throughout different industries, have not produced the most important thing that WDA was supposed to deliver. Put it another way: WDA spent $110M in training grants in 2015 (as reported in their financial report), and $50M went down the drain!

What makes a master skillful is not the number of competency units he has acquired

So what is the solution? Does this mean that we should not teach people skills? Not at all! Skills acquisition is important, but they are not the be all and the end all. The objective is not the skills, but the outcome from the use of these skills. This then goes into behaviours, because it is in behaviours that we see action. If you are putting the skills to use, we can see it in your behaviour. If you are keen to compete in the national Taekwondo competitions, we can see it in the number of hours that you practise the art, by the way you contribute to new learners, even by the way you wear your clothes! These are all outward signs of your intent within. So attitude and behaviour are more important than skills alone. A fired-up and enthusiastic Green Belter may be able to beat the living daylights out of a nonplussed Black Belter any time, even with fewer skills. Skills accumulation, the preoccupation of the Singapore skills development system, has very limited impact on the outcomes of the application of these skills. What makes a master "skillful" is ironically not the number of competency units he has, but how he wields them. Hence, mindsets are the more important things to develop than skills. But herein lies the rub - how do you shape mindsets, how do you identify them, and more importantly, how do you assess them? Without proper assessment, you cannot have accountability, and without accountability, it is difficult to justify spending public money. Yet, what justification is there when you spend $110M, and $50M is wasted? Should we continue to use a system that is broken simply because it is easier to measure by?

Soft skills cannot be treated like hard skills

But this is where is gets a little complicated. Buoyed by their ability to codify hard skills - and Taekwondo kicks and punches are hard skills - the WSQ has ventured into codifying "soft skills", skills like communication, leadership, relating with one another. And they have a whole set of competencies surrounding these soft skills, such that, once you are deemed to be competent, it is also deemed that you have acquired these soft skills. Leadership, decision-making, judgement, problem-solving and communication have a very large emotive content; in fact, neuroscience has proven the primacy of the amygdala's (emotive) role in decision-making, and if one ignores the impact of "gut instinct", which in Singapore is still frowned upon, one actually goes into the decision in a severely disadvantaged position. As such, these programmes will not be able to yield the results that it was designed to achieve. I will not be surprised that a large chunk of the training grants that WDA disbursed last year was for soft skills.

Enter traits-based programmes

So what is the solution? Enter traits-based programmes. A trait is a common, observable behaviour, and this is the external indication of an internal motive. By identifying your traits strengths, you identify what you prefer doing, how you prefer doing it, and this will help in sustaining the learning. Hence, it starts with who you are, what are your preferences, and, what you need to develop to become better at something. For the case of Taekwondo competition, traits like standing endurance, speed of execution, the ability to think several steps ahead, are all very important to be successful. Now having these traits without having the concomitant skills to utilise them will not make a Taekwondo champion; but conversely, having all the skills but not these traits, will also not make the champion. It is better to have these traits with fewer skills, than all the skills with fewer traits. As such, a soft skills programme is better served by a traits-based programme, than by a competency- (skills-) based programme.

How to identify traits

Since a trait is driven from within, there is a need for a psychological assessment. But not any psychological system will do; yours needs to be able to identify work-based behaviours. It needs to be certified by a competent body to be both valid and reliable in its outcomes. A valid system is one that actually measures what it says it will measure; and a reliable system is one which returns the same results over time, given the same inputs. Some systems are normed, and this will take into account cultural differences, but some are not because they deal with a set of universal behavioural traits. Once you have found a suitable system for your audience, and have tested the outcome of the assessment, you can then apply it to all your learners, starting from their current traits strengths. It is only through a self awareness of one's "starting point" can we then proceed to develop ourself better. After all, if you don't even know where you are now, how can you ever think to get somewhere else?

Individualising learning

The outcome for a traits-based learning system is its ability to individualise learning. By knowing what you know and what you don't know, by understanding what are your current strengths and what traits you need to develop to be better at, say, leadership, you can focus your individual development vis-à-vis the skills component. Again, we are not asserting that the skills element is unimportant - sure it it - but as Mr Lee Kuan Yew once said,

"I do not yet know of a man who became a leader as a result of having undergone a leadership course."

Well said, Mr Lee. What he was alluding to was the fact that leadership courses are still concentrating on skills, skills which do not actually make a leader. Leadership is a trait, and if you don't know what your trait inclinations are, and what you need to focus on in your leadership development, then, collecting more skills will still not make you a leader, and so undergoing such leadership courses is moot.

A traits-based programme will help individualise the learning - giving you both the skills and the awareness to shape your personal development.

Now wouldn't take make your soft skills training much more effective?

But it's not a panacea

Before one mistakenly concludes from this article that a competency-based programme won't work, and a traits-based one will, let me state categorically that the competency-based system serves the hard-skills arena very well. The issue comes in when you take this same basis and put it for soft-skill programmes. Competency based programmes do not work very well in this space, and you can find out more in our e-book below from research by McKinsey & Co. But lest I am misunderstood, I also don't say that it is a panacea. It does not mean that a traits-based programme will definitely lead one to becoming a master. Mastery of a subject matter must be driven by passion, interest, behaviours and traits. But at least it helps the person along the way by identifying traits strengths, and helping in the development of those that can lead to success. It takes more time because behaviours need to be reinforced, but ultimately, this is time well invested when we get the desired outcomes from a soft-skill programme.

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Want to know more about traits-based learning? Why not download our free ebook, Getting Greater Mileage with Traits-Based Learning?

NOTE: The last paragraph "But it's not a panacea" was added after the original article was published because of feedback asking if it was then a matter of which is better, competency-based or traits-based learning, which is not.

About Ian Dyason

Ian is the Founder of Growth Consulting Asia, an adult educator for more than 15 years and a former senior leader in a WDA Continuing Education and Training Centre. His views do not represent the views of the CET he was formally leading or for other CETs in Singapore.

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