How to teach employees skills they don’t know they lack

By: Ulrick Juul Christensen September 29, 2017


After spending billions of dollars a year on corporate learning, U.S. companies probably assume that their employees have the knowledge and skills they need to carry out their jobs. The employees themselves probably think they’re prepared, too, having gone through these exercises. But according to data from industries including academia, health care, technology, manufacturing, retail, sports, and business services, people are actually “unconsciously incompetent” in a typical 20% to 40% of areas critical to their performance.  One global technology company my team works with, for example, discovered that, on average, its sales employees didn’t understand or know about 22% of its product features, even though they believed they did.

Unconscious incompetence can be found at every function, discipline, and level in organizations. In fact, it’s often more prominent among experienced staff, which is particularly problematic because, as the go-to people in their circles, they often pass incorrect or incomplete information and skills on to others via to peer-to-peer learning and training. This can lead to significant mistakes, dissatisfied customers and even damaged corporate reputations.

But how does a company, manager or individual employee correct a competency gap about which no one is aware?  As a physician who studies brain function, biological variation  and how people learn, I have some suggestions. The first step is to get “unconscious incompetence” on the learning agenda.

Corporate training programs need to be redesigned to better engage learners and empower them to admit what they don’t know. Too many online training modules miss the mark here because they rely on static content, which most people try to click through as quickly as possible, especially if they think they already know it. These programs also make assumptions about what students understand and where they need reinforcement, offering a “one-size-fits-all” approach that’s highly ineffective since every learner is different, with variations in knowledge, experiences, background and the ability to take in new information, even from moment to moment.

Better learning models are instead adaptive—that is, molded to each person’s needs by probing what they know and don’t know, then offering tailored content as the learner performs well or struggles. When e-learning is individualized in this way, learners can still speed through material, but only that which they’ve already mastered. And when they reach anything that challenges them, they get more support.  Education technology companies and publishers are working hard to build these kinds of systems, as are industry groups, particularly in the healthcare arena. The American Medical Association recently announced a partnership initiative to encourage innovation and flexibility in continuing education, using blended or new approaches. And our work with the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM Group) to create courses that allow physicians to maintain certification and keep up to date in a constantly evolving field is similar.

When being tested, learners should also be pushed to rate the confidence of their answers.   Consider, for example, a trainee who scores 40 out of 50 on a proficiency test. Her trainer should make sure she focuses not just on the 10 misses, but also any correct answers that she can admit were lucky guesses. I’ve actually started to use this approach when helping my two daughters practice their spelling words. With every answer, they have to put three fingers up if they are sure, two fingers up if they’re only partly sure, and a thumbs-down if they’re just giving it a shot. Now, they’re much more conscious about when they’re guessing, and more apt to review all the words on which they felt at all unsure. When corporate learning programs prompt employees to admit to that they’re guessing in the same way, they, too, begin to see the previously hidden gaps in their skills and knowledge.

Another strategy is to promote a culture of continuous improvement.  A great example comes from the aviation industry. Pilots are trained in the latest aircraft and procedures using simulators, which test their skills and abilities, and uncover unconscious incompetence. In addition, airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) use information from “near-miss” data (incidents or errors that nearly cause an accident) to inform training. The result is “predictive safety” that relies heavily on the reporting of these mistakes. The objective is not to punish (in fact, a lack of near-miss data is seen as questionable), but to improve safety and performance.  More companies should keep formal or informal records of—and openly discuss—errors, whether in production, customer service, or other areas because they can yield invaluable insights about employees’ knowledge gaps and make everyone more aware of what they don’t know.  The goal is to make people more comfortable about acknowledging previous mistakes and any doubts they may have going forward about trying to do their job. Emphasize that saying “I don’t know” is always better than pretending to know something.

Unconscious incompetence is a pervasive and escalating problem, especially in fast-paced industries where knowledge and skills need constant updating.  Organizations can only address it with more adaptive, individualized corporate learning programs and by promoting a culture of continues improvement.  With a mindful approach that allows learners to probe their knowledge, uncover what they don’t know, and admit when they are unclear, incompetence is uncovered and, thus, no longer unconscious: Employees know what they don’t know and their employers can do something about it.

5 reasons to dream big, even when you think you have no business doing so

By: Marty Fukuda January 11, 2016


“Do not allow a thought to enter your mind about where you are at today when you are deciding where you are headed. “I jotted down the quote above more than a decade ago at a business conference. I do not know to whom it is originally attributed, but I have thought about it often over the past several years. At some point in time, we have all asked ourselves, “Where am I headed?“ At moments, I’ve found myself in wonderful career situations and was obviously very bullish on my future. After all, it’s easy to view the years ahead through an optimistic lens when you’re riding high. However, other times I’ve found myself at a crossroads — faced with a decision to change roles, companies or even industries. In fact, I’ve even had to start over completely more than once. At those critical junctures, it’s easier to be conservative or cautious or even jaded about one’s future. The trick is not to be.

Here are five reasons why you shouldn’t let your current situation and surroundings impact your vision for the future.

  1. Limiting yourself is a sure-fire way to not reach your potential.

If you aren’t where you want to be professionally or personally, the temptation to dampen your life’s ambition is strong. In fact, others may advise you to go conservative with your dreams to soften the blow should you fall short. While setting big goals doesn’t ensure you’ll reach them, not setting them will almost guarantee you don’t. Historically, those who have achieved the most are the ones who set out to do huge things against all odds, logic and probability.

  1. Everyone needs something that stirs his or her soul — especially top performers.

When was the last time something you sought to accomplish gave you chills or goose bumps? When you’ve found your true compelling stretch vision, there’s magic behind it. It will help you navigate the route to get there and power through the toughest obstacles. Still, this vision has to be so exciting to you personally that nothing short will be acceptable. A sensible or practical goal will not get you there. As Victor Hugo said: :Each man should frame life so that at some future hour, fact and his dreaming meet.”

  1. It’s not relevant.

Where you are at today has little to do with what happens moving forward. Some people allow their current positions to dominate their thoughts about future advancement. Sadly, they are unlikely to accomplish all that you will.

Those who make big things happen do so by accepting where they are today but simultaneously refuse to let this limit them. They realize they have far more control over their destinies than that. They stop focusing on what they don’t have and pour their energy into what they want.

  1. Understand the power of momentum and how it can work for you.

The key to conquering the biggest obstacles is to dissect them into smaller challenges. The fastest sports car in the world doesn’t go instantaneously from 0 to 100 miles per hour. First, it goes from a complete stop to 1 mph. As it picks up speed, accelerating becomes easier — the engine is warm, the gas pedal pressed, and forward momentum is on your side. Some people are daunted by a stretch goal, because it seems so distant. Keep your eyes on the prize, but focus your daily attention on closing the gap just a little. The power of momentum engages — first steps become hops, jumps and then leaps.

  1. Thinking and aiming big forces you to be more creative, work harder and develop a bias towards action.

The people who achieve the biggest goals are often the people you’d least suspect. Superficially, on paper, they don’t have the perfect resume, but the pursuer knows they deliver their absolute best every day. This positive self-pressure generates growth. Mediocre goals never bring out greatness.

What everyone must know about Industry 4.0

By: Bernard Marr June 20, 2016


First came steam and the first machines that mechanized some of the work our ancestors did. Next was electricity, the assembly line and the birth of mass production.  The third era of industry came about with the advent of computers and the beginnings of automation, when robots and machines began to replace human workers on those assembly lines. And now we enter Industry 4.0, in which computers and automation will come together in an entirely new way, with robotics connected remotely to computer systems equipped with machine learning algorithms that can learn and control the robotics with very little input from human operators. Industry 4.0 introduces what has been called the “smart factory,” in which cyber-physical systems monitor the physical processes of the factory and make decentralized decisions. The physical systems become Internet of Things, communicating and cooperating both with each other and with humans in real time via the wireless web. For a factory or system to be considered Industry 4.0, it must include:

Here are five reasons why you shouldn’t let your current situation and surroundings impact your vision for the future.

  • Interoperability — machines, devices, sensors and people that connect and communicate with one another.
  • Information transparency — the systems create a virtual copy of the physical world through sensor data in order to contextualize information.
  • Technical assistance — both the ability of the systems to support humans in making decisions and solving problems andthe ability to assist humans with tasks that are too difficult or unsafe for humans.
  • Decentralized decision-making — the ability of cyber-physical systems to make simple decisions on their own and become as autonomous as possible.

But as with any major shift, there are challenges inherent in adopting an Industry 4.0 model:

  • Data security issues are greatly increased by integrating new systems and more access to those systems. Additionally, proprietary production knowledge becomes an IT security problem as well.
  • A high degree of reliability and stability are needed for successful cyber-physical communication that can be difficult to achieve and maintain.
  • Maintaining the integrity of the production process with less human oversight could become a barrier.
  • Loss of high-paying human jobs is always a concern when new automations are introduced.
  • And avoiding technical problems that could cause expensive production outages is always a concern.

Additionally, there is a systemic lack of experience and manpower to create and implement these systems — not to mention a general reluctance from stakeholders and investors to invest heavily in new technologies.

But the benefits of an Industry 4.0 model could outweigh the concerns for many production facilities. In very dangerous working environments, the health and safety of human workers could be improved dramatically.  Supply chains could be more readily controlled when there is data at every level of the manufacturing and delivery process. Computer control could produce much more reliable and consistent productivity and output.  And the results for many businesses could be increased revenues, market share, and profits.

Reports have even suggested that emerging markets like India could benefit tremendously from Industry 4.0 practices, and the city of Cincinnati, Ohio has declared itself an “Industry 4.0 demonstration city” to encourage investment and innovation in the manufacturing sector there.

The question, then, is not if Industry 4.0 is coming, but how quickly. As with big data and other business trends, I suspect that the early adopters will be rewarded for their courage jumping into this new technology, and those who avoid change risk becoming irrelevant and left behind.

One of our best 2016 MBA theses on authentic leadership and work engagement

Investigating the mediating effect of perceived organisational support on the relationship between authentic leadership and work engagement

By: Vermeulen, Theresa, 2017



Using positive psychology and the theory of organisational support and reciprocity, we examined whether perceived organisational support (POS) mediates the relationship between authentic leadership and engagement. Authentic leadership and engagement have been investigated extensively however not in relation to POS within the same study.

Given the context of the world of work today, there is a need to move beyond the direct association between leadership and engagement to study how other variables may strengthen or weaken this relationship. Data was collected from 202 employees, working in an international information technology organisation and results were analysed at the group level.

Regression analysis was used to test for mediation, followed by statistical tests of the indirect effect as well as bootstrapping. Differences between subgroups were also investigated and model fit analysis to establish whether the suggested model was a good fit. The results showed that POS partially mediates the relationship between authentic leadership and engagement. Further practical implications of the findings are discussed, together with limitations and ideas for future research.


  • Authentic leadership
  • Work engagement
  • POS