Too many departments within organisations attempt to skill their employees, when they need to drill their employees.

Drilling, or making people practise a skill or assimilate knowledge until it becomes second nature, is used when people are new to a task or need to correct errors in the way they execute a task. It is also used when an automatic response to stimuli is required.

Skilling, or giving people the rationale and the knowledge to adopt certain behaviours, is used when people are fully competent at tasks. It is also used when we want people to be able to interpolate and extrapolate from their current experience.

Drilling involves low levels of cognitive thought processes. It helps embed items held in sensory memory into short term memory and then to long term memory.

For example, learning the “Ten Top Attributes of Leadership” from a list created from research by means of reciting the list, keeps the list in short term memory.

Repeating the same list and being tested on the list daily codifies the list into your long term memory.

Associating the codifying of the list into long term memory with a sound, a smell, a sight, a touch or an emotion helps in retrieval of the list later from long term memory.

Skilling involves high levels of cognitive thought accessing information from long term memory. It requires analysis and decision making capacity. It is suitable to make people grow and to meet the higher needs of Maslow’s hierarchy.

For example, running a course where classroom interaction is encouraged on the topic, “What is a leader?” with participants sharing their experiences on good and bad leadership traits. A high level of cognitive thought is required to develop a list of leadership attributes.

Skilling and drilling require different instructional design.

Drilling requires participants to practise, practise and practise until they get it right. For example, learning that 1 + 1 = 2 as I was taught in grade one.

Skilling requires participants to be challenged in what they know as normal. People need to be given circumstances or put in environments where they have to interpolate and extrapolate from what they know to discover the general principles that govern the processes and tasks under consideration. For example, being required to prove that the number 1 exists and 1 + 1 = 2 at university.

It is popular to follow McGregor’s XY Theory of motivation and be a theory Y (participative) boss or trainer. That is, to include much cognitive thinking in the training design (to skill). However, there are many times when it is much better to drill, especially where discipline and consistency are required.

Ten examples I can think of are, remembering:

  • What is on the menu as a waiter in a restaurant
  • The safety procedure in the case of fire
  • How to reload your gun under fire as a soldier
  • What cannot be legally imported as a customs officer
  • What are the features, advantages and benefits of products as a retail sales person
  • How to answer the telephone in any business
  • What is in the brand style guide as a marketer
  • What to do as a pilot when the low altitude light comes on
  • Where major streets and suburbs are as a taxi driver
  • How to navigate through multiple screens and systems to retrieve information in a help desk call centre

There are some common approaches to training instructional design which are good to include.

Common approaches include:

  • Verbal repetition
  • Writing down what is said to have two modes of memory retention operating and reinforcing each other
  • Matching words and phrases to chunk the material to be remembered into smaller “bits” of information
  • Physical repetition to achieve muscle memory e.g. dancing, sport techniques or conditioned response e.g. emergency response
  • Quizzes, games and other competitive fun environments to associate feelings, sounds and touch with the information to be encoded
  • Revising to repeat retrieval and recoding into long term memory
  • Acknowledging that people will be tested to create higher levels of attention aiding the codifying process
  • Using fun to motivate and interest people – people remember more of that in which they are interested

Drilling as outlined above needs not be as boring as learning by rote at school. We need to be more direct in much of our training than we are. We need to drill to be sure that our people can actually execute the skills we require.

Drilling is often better than trying to skill, and always better than leaving people to their best efforts to “learn on the job”.