Business in Asia is becoming more competitive, as technology shrinks the world and allows more companies, even small and medium enterprises, to operate on a global scale.

Staying competitive is a constantly moving goalpost, one that requires constant and consistent effort to maintain.

Given the rate of change of technology, and the way that doing business itself has changed over time, it is imperative for companies to ensure that their staff are constantly learning on and around the job, bringing new skills to bear to be ready for any challenge that may arise.

Team competitiveness is dependent on all members bringing their knowledge to the table, and a skill shortfall from even one member can have a disastrous effect on the entire team.

It is becoming apparent, in the face of this level of competition, that a limiting factor in an enterprise’s ability to change, and respond to change, lies in its own capacity to develop skills — that is, to the extent to which its human resources can benefit from training, and the extent to which that training receives support within the organisation.

Skills training can be divided into two areas — interactive and non-interactive skills.

The latter are far easier to learn: these are prescriptive skills where standardised procedures and rote mechanisation are sufficient to learn the skill.

Learners can proceed at their own pace, because these skills do not require interaction with others, and these skills are largely procedural.

Interactive skills, as the title suggests, depend on interaction with others. They depend on modelling the other party’s behaviour, and require a great deal of flexibility because of the unpredictability of human behaviour.

Sometimes considered “soft” skills, interactive skills are actually those most concerned with communication and negotiation with others and, in fact, may be the most influential on business outcomes.

The increasing importance of interactive skills may be the most telling reflection of the increasingly personal nature of business, particularly in Asia.

Developing interactive skills can be a challenge, because of the nature of the skills, and some guiding principles may be useful.

Control competing pressures

Because interactive skills are generally regarded as “soft”, they rarely receive the priority or attention given to more tangible performance areas. Companies that are serious about developing these skills must internally support the coaching and ongoing development needed to make the best use of these skills.

One behaviour at a time

Interactive skills are particularly susceptible to overload during learning, when the amount to be learned exceeds the learner’s processing capacity. This can have a catastrophic effect on any learning, particularly when the learner is trying to acquire an interactive skill.

Because interactive skills cannot be practised in slow motion, learning is most successful if the learning task is broken down into single behaviours which are learned sequentially, focusing on one at a time.

Quantity before quality

 The acquisition of interactive skills can be slowed because of undue attention to quality. In actuality, interactive skills benefit the most from repeated performance, even when that performance is not perfect, in order to naturalise and internalise the new behaviours needed for the successful performance of the skill.

Practise in safe situations

Because practice is such an essential component to the learning of interactive skills, creating the right, safe environment for this practice can make all the difference.

Not practising, and using live, high-risk situations for the development of interactive skills can have negative business results at best, and completely inhibit the learner at worst.

It is useful to create safe practice situations during the early stages of skills development, for example, practising negotiation with small accounts before trying the skill out with major customers.

Reinforce behaviour, not results

An undue focus on results can actually make the learner self-conscious, and this can adversely affect his ability to pick up the skill.

There is a period after first learning the skill where the learner is using the new behaviour, but without yet achieving positive results.

This incorporation lag is not unique to interactive skills. Focusing on results at the beginning can be discouraging for the learner, and prevent him from reaching the point where he does experience positive results.

Acquiring these interactive skills will remain an important prerogative for those businesses that seek to match the level of competition that modern business requires.

When all levels of the enterprise are aligned, staff can acquire new skills, with the support and coaching of internal mentors, raising not only the standard of the individual, but of the enterprise as a whole — ensuring that everyone is playing their “A” game.