Building an apprenticeship environment is key to unlocking continuous skills development

A manager asks a team member to prepare a presentation. The draft falls short of what’s needed, so the manager expresses her disappointment and offers feedback via email, then waits for her colleague’s second try. The next iteration still misses the mark; the manager, pressed for time and concerned that her team member will never get the presentation quite right, takes over and rewrites it herself. In the end, the presentation is completed, but both parties leave the experience frustrated and demoralised – and no one has better skills than they had before the effort began.

Sound familiar?

Perhaps you’re guilty of redoing work due to time constraints, or maybe you have a manager who insists on taking your work and rehashing it rather than taking the time to explain and model what he or she needs from you. Either way, it’s the ticking clock that continues to be the arbiter that frequently decides for us how we effectively develop people – or don’t develop them – as the case may be. 

I’ve talked before about the skills shortage we’re facing in the agency world, and yet there is real, palpable tension between a manager’s dual obligations to deliver results and develop people. In the end, we often prioritise completing the task and cast aside the learning opportunity.

While opportunities for development fall by the wayside – there’s a real cost to individuals and your business health and cohesion. 

So, what can you do? 

Upskilling and reskilling through apprentice-based learning

There’s suggestion that one of the best ways to unlock the rapid capability building that is required for knowledge-based workforces is to put focus on learning via apprenticeship. It may seem counter intuitive in the face of intense workplace time pressures but adopting some apprenticeship techniques and scaling them can help to unlock learning opportunities and democratise skill building in ways that formal programs cannot. 

At its core, apprenticeship is a relationship-driven learning model, based on actual day-to-day work, in which a novice gains hands-on knowledge from an expert to grow skills and act with increasing independence. In the earliest forms of apprenticeship, an individual could learn everything needed about a craft from a single expert. Considering today’s rising workplace complexity, this is impossible; individuals will likely have many apprenticeship relationships over the course of their careers.

A distributed apprenticeship model begins with the belief that everyone shares two obligations: the responsibility to learn and the responsibility to teach.

McKinsey & Company

Building a culture of teachers starts with letting go of the antiquated notion that domain skills are tied to tenure or seniority. The teacher does not have to be the direct team lead, the senior leader, the “guru,” or expert faculty. Teachers can be anyone in an organisation, even peers or junior colleagues who possess a skill that others need to build.

How can you implement apprenticeship culture?

  • Create a clear organisational expectation for both learning and teaching
  • Build apprenticeship skills in every employee
  • Identify the skills that individuals need to build
  • Identify experts and provide transparency so people can find one another
  • Be broad and inclusive about who can apprentice
  • Create incentives to encourage individuals to both teach and learn.
  • Visibly position a CEO or senior leader who values learning and teaching, talks about both actively, and models his or her intentionality around both – Leaders who tangibly and visibly invest in their own learning and are transparent about their vulnerabilities create a psychologically safe environment that values progress over perfection. It also gives others permission to invest time in apprenticeship behaviors and begins to establish the expectation for how leaders should act

While formal learning will always play a critical role in shaping workforce skills, creating an apprenticeship culture unlocks learning at the point where the work is done. It democratises skill building and empowers both those with expertise and those who need guidance to direct how best to overcome skill gaps. But more than this, apprenticeship can serve as the networked fabric that knits an organisation together. At its core, it’s a deep relationship between people and gives organisations yet another tool through which they can foster cohesion, meaning, purpose, and connection.

There are significantly more apprenticeship opportunities in a modern organisation than might meet the eye. Given the right circumstances, anyone can learn from anyone else. Apprenticeship opportunities are broader than hierarchy; they exceed the confines of organisational charts and team structures. Introducing modern apprenticeship to an organisation means giving everyone in an organisation the permission to apprentice others and to break down barriers that may prevent meaningful partnership with experts.

Lessons based on McKinsey article, ‘Reviving the art of apprenticeship to unlock continuous skill development’. 

Would a focus on apprenticeship work in your business? Perhaps you already naturally employ many of these apprenticeship behaviours in your own working relationships? I’d love to hear your thoughts. 



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