Six Reasons Skill Development Doesn’t Happen

And those that lack skills will find themselves alone with no one listening.
Those that lack skills will find themselves alone with no one listening. Painting by Frederick Leighton: Faded Laural, bottom half.


We are expected learn, but never been taught. We need to grow skills, but don’t know how. Indeed, our schooling, our skill development, should never stop, but for many, it has. We haven’t learned what Mark Twain  was fond of saying which goes, “I never let education get in the way of my schooling.” 

By Murray Johannsen, January 27, 2015.  Comments? Feel free to connect with the author via this website, Linkedin,   or by  email.

1. Skill Development Is Rarely Taught

“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” — Attributed to Robert Orbin

Die Schulklasse. Signiert. Datiert 1861. Öl auf Leinwand
Die Schulklasse. Signiert. Datiert 1861. Öl auf Leinwand

Despite the lip service about life-long learning, schools and universities don’t bother to teach a skill development model and the mastery practices accelerating the development of key skill-sets. It seems we expect students to learn by osmosis.

Ask yourself, “Have you ever been taught how to turn theory into a skill?” If you can say yes, consider yourself lucky.

This was a hard lesson for yours truly to learn. For I found out during my first semester in college that I didn’t know how to learn. I was putting in the time since my home away from home was the library. 

After getting good grades in the high school, getting really low grades served as a wake-up call that something was seriously wrong. Doing nothing meant graduating with the lowest possible GPA in the history of the university or not graduating at all. For the learning mechanisms that got me through high school weren’t good enough to do the same for college. 

So after spending most of Christmas break in the library, it became clear that I was never taught how to learn. Seriously, have you ever had a class called, “How to Improve Your Reading Comprehension,” and “How to Quickly Memorize and Recall?”, or “Fifteen Ways to Waste Less Time Studying,”

But finding sound skill-based theory was not enough—one still had to discover how to develop skills. Even though you have the code, you skill have to write the program.

It was from these fundamental insights that I was able to get two different graduate degrees and being lucky enough to teach in some very good universities both in America and Asia. But it all started with a fundamental understanding that I didn’t have the skill of skill development.

2: Most Academic Theory Can’t be Turned into Skills 

“Economics is the only field in which two people can get a Nobel Prize for saying the opposite thing.”  — Dennis Alexis Valin Dittrich, Jokes About Economics and Economists

Skill-Based theory needs to have a practical application, one the is relevant to the real world

I believe in sound theory—if you can find it. Some theory is sometimes just good to know. Quantum physics and astronomy come to mind. But when it comes to playing the role of manager and leader, sound theory must be practical and capable of being practiced. This means that almost all theory in a typical textbook is not helpful when it come to developing skills.

Remember, a textbook is essential a set of research findings. It tells you what, but rarely how. My favorite example comes from psychology. In all basic textbooks on psychology, there will be a chapter on memory (Franzoi, 2009). In a typical chapter you will find concept after concept, backed up by study after study listing different theories on: sensory, short-term, long-term, procedural, episodic and semantic memory; and you might even read about repressed memory and “forgetting.”

What’s missing? Real world techniques that improve memory such as exercises and application assignments. Consequently, psychology students understand what memory is, but not how to improve it.

To give you one quick example, most of us have trouble recalling peoples names. But there is an easy to learn technique known as the image-name technique that will allow you to do so.

Jonathan Swift in his book Guilliver’s Travels, saw this as one problem with academic theory. In his satire, there is an allegory about the flying Island of Laputa where great resources were spent educating people in areas such as mathematics, music and technology. But then, they failed to make practical use of this knowledge. I like to call this “blue sky theory” since it’s not ground to the real world.

I remember sitting in a discussion held in the hollowed halls of academia about how the business school could increase student enrollments. This individual opined that, “We should focus on the knowledge and skills students need to get a job.” Immediately two full-time faculty professors speaking in perfect unison shot down that idea with, “We are not a trade school.” This bias against the practical helped me to understand why b-school faculty don’t teach courses designed to fulfill industry needs.

In fact, really smart companies are running their own learning operations. Experts believe there are over 2,000 corporate universities located in the United States (SHRM, 2007)

MIT Professor Donald Sadoway a lecture on 12/9/2009. Image by ThePlaz.MIT Professor Donald Sadoway a lecture on 12/9/2009. Image by ThePlaz.”

“There is no theory to absurd, to patently rediculous, or too impractical that a philosopher somewhere will not propose it.” — Anonymous

A problem with the theory published in the peer reviewed journals or even textbooks is that this theory is typically horribly abstract. This makes is difficult to understand, let alone turn into something practical. 

Academics love scholar English—an intellectual form of the language only understood by Ph.Ds. Here is one of my favorite examples, a extremely obtuse paper titled “Contingent Relativism and Libertarian and Collectivist Meta-Narratives.”

Often, abstract language has to be converted to a more concrete form. Here are some more examples (Source: Dr. Marlene Caroselli):

A plethora of individuals with expertise in culinary techniques vitiates the potable concoction produced by steeping comestibles. (To many cooks spoil the broth)

It is fruitless to engage in lacrimation over precipitively departed lacteal fluid. (Don’t cry over spilled milk.)

It is futile to attempt to indoctrinate a superannuated canine with innovations. (Can’t teach an old dog new tricks) 

The more abstract the theory, the less likely it has some practical applications. This is not always the case since professional jargon has practical uses.


If you are an aerospace engineer, correcting for the distortion and diffraction of light experienced when it encounters dust and smoke makes for better telescopes and smart bombs. Unfortunately, skill development is more difficult when theory is abstract.

3. Individuals Don’t Know The Theory Necessary For Skilled Practice

“All skills are built on a foundation of sound theory.” — M. Johannsen

One cannot learn an application skill like ballet by reading books about it. Yet, that is who we teach leadership and management—by the book.

Skills vary tremendously in terms of the amount of time and effort one must dedicate to practice. Some skill development efforts require a few minutes; others take hundreds or thousands of hours. Practicing to make a positive first impression typically take less than 30 minutes. Learning a new language as an adult takes hundreds or thousands of hours.

It takes thousands of hours to become a charismatic speaker, get a 7th degree black belt, to move into the ranks of a chess master or to perform a flawless tea ceremony. Even those with great aptitude blessed with a large dose of talent, one must practice endlessly to get really good.

Sports psychologies have long understand that mental practice is just as important as physical practice. And in some cases, it more important that the physical practice. One can practice a speech, but it was less easy to be able to physically practice an interview.

One can shorten the amount of practice needed in skill development if one uses skilled practice. Skilled practice means one must first understand and use a sound skill building model. This serve as the map guiding your steps forward. Otherwise, you are lost.

Discover What is Meant on Skill-Based Theory


Learn out More About Skillful PracticeSkill_Modelv1

Principle 4. The Mastery Practices Necessary for Skill Practice Are Not Developed

It has long been known that using mental and physical practice together will accelerate the development of most skills (Driskall, 1994). And it has been demonstrated even when learning surgical skills (Arora, et. al., 2011).

But to use mental practice skillfully, you need to also master a set of  four mastery practicesThey are:

  • Meditation
  • Reflection
  • Self-Talk, and
  • Visualization.

5. Students Assume The Best Measure of Learning is the GPA

“If you read about swimming, you drown.” — Henry Mintzberg.

Image by: Antoine Taveneaux Galton Box to demonstrate the normal distribution.
Image by: Antoine Taveneaux Galton Box to demonstrate the normal distribution.

In many academic programs, students get diverted into the pursuit of a getting good grades as their most important take away. Come to think of it, there were many wonky classes where a decent grade was the only possible payback for the cost of tuition.

And yet, the GPA is a very poor predictor of performance in the real world of business. Extensive research done by Google, confirms that there isn’t a correlation between GPA and success in business.

Image by: Xristina la. Bloom's Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain - Revised
Image by: Xristina la. Bloom’s Taxonomy of the Cognitive Domain – Revised

Why you might ask? One explanation has to do with the fact that higher level thinking skills require at least the ability to apply the theory in the real world. And while tests are good for understanding and remembering, application requires some type of feedback, ideally from the real world.

I remember an MBA advertising class where I was supposed to create an ad. “Cool,” I thought, “Something practical.” And threw myself into it with wild abandon. Of course, the professor didn’t like it the fruits of this creative endeavor. This irritated me to no end. Here was an advertising professor who never had run a real world ad campaign telling me that my ad sucked?

Some argue that writing a twenty-page research paper is applying theory;  but I beg to differ. I remember my very first employer had a scholar English  deprograming course.  It was here that I learned that the master piece is NOT written in 15 pages, double spaced,  in Times 12 point with one-inch margins using APA style sheets. A masterpiece is being able to condense fifteen-pages down to a two-pages that hold and the readers interest from beginning to end.

Still, some say the university model has legs to it if it can be mutated slightly. And it helps to read articles such as, “The 3 Secrets Of Highly Successful Graduates.” 

6. Employers Have Training Without Development

Image by: Formula Student Germany, Reichmann.
Image by: Formula Student Germany, Reichmann.

“55% of newly acquired knowledge is forgotten after one hour. After 6 days, 77% of newly acquired knowledge is forgotten.” – Hermann Ebbinghaus Research

Most of what people hear in classrooms and conference rooms is forgotten before it gets applied. Think about the last training program you went to. How much do you still remember?

Let’s face it, the training model used by the vast majority of corporations and government agencies doesn’t work as a means for building skills. You might as well take cash and flush it down the toilet for all the good it does. Partly this is due to how one practices.

Practicing once keeps a novice a novice. You might say, “Oh, that principle is really obvious, like saying the sky is blue. Don’t take me for an idiot.” But think for a moment. Single practice is what’s commonly done in training programs everywhere. And in the seminar format, participants don’t even have to practice anything.

I saw this practice effect operating when teaching problem solving tools to operators in manufacturing companies. The first time they used a tool such as a cause and effect diagram, it was not so good. The second time better. The third time pretty good.  

Image by: Urkel-os. A Full Windsor Knot
Image by: Urkel-os. Picture of a full Windsor knot. Even simple behaviors such as tying your shoelaces or doing a Windsor knot cannot be mastered is you just practice once.

If you don’t practice, you can fall down, but you can’t ski.” — Murray Johannsen

“The great aim of education is not knowledge but action.” — Herbert Spencer


Despite all the issues, you can perfect your skill development process and get an edge. All you need to do is access the Skill Building Model and develop a set of Mastery Practices.


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Cava, Marco, (2015). One Tech Vet’s Education Dream. USA Today. January 22.

Arora, Sonal; Aggarwal, Rajesh; Sirimanna, Pramudith; Moran, Aidan; Grantcharov, Teodor; Kneebone, Roger; Sevdalis, Nick; Darzi, Ara (2011). Mental Practice Enhances Surgical Technical Skills, Annals of Surgery, 253 (2). February.

Carlson, Nicholas (2105). Crucial New Career Advice From LinkedIn’s Billionaire Founder Reid Hoffman, Business Insider, January 24.

Driskell JE, Copper C, Moran A. (1994). Does mental practice enhance performance?, Journal of Applied Psychology, 79(4):481–492

Franzoi (2014). Essentials of Psychology, 5th Edition, CengageBrain. 

Johannsen, M. (ND). Mastery Practices Level II: Skill Building. Thousand Oaks, CA:

Matyszczyk, Chris (2013). Google: GPAs Are Worthless. C/Net. June 20.

O’Shaughnessey, Lynn (2014). Are the Colleges Preparing Students For The Workplace? The College Solution. Based on Gallup Poll Data.

Society of Human Resource Management (2007). Corporate Universities,

Leadership Skill Development