McKinsey Quarterly

Reviving the art of apprenticeship to unlock continuous skill development

| Article

Recognize this situation? 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 demoralized—and no one has better skills than they had before the effort began.

As simplistic as this example may seem, the manager faced an all-too-familiar decision. The ticking clock continues to be the arbiter that frequently decides for us how we effectively develop people. We often tell ourselves, “I know I should help them learn this, but now is not the time.” At the root of this perspective is a tension between a manager’s dual obligations to deliver results and develop people. In the end, we often prioritize completing the task and cast aside the learning opportunity. However, these lost opportunities pile up, exacting a cost on individuals, professional development, and overall organizational health and cohesion.

The pressure for businesses to develop and reskill their employees, however, continues to increase. As businesses emerge from the pandemic, more than 80 percent of them face critical gaps in the skills needed to build resilience amid ongoing uncertainty. Learning and development will continue to play a crucial role in keeping pace with change, but only 42 percent of employees are taking up employer-supported reskilling and upskilling opportunities in their organizations.1 As remote work increases, teams become more diverse and geographically distributed, further straining a manager’s ability to meet individual employee needs. In short, there is simply too much to learn and not enough time for formal learning to meet all of an organization’s reskilling needs.

In these new circumstances, we believe that one age-old art can become central to an organization’s strategy for improving capabilities, learning, and culture: apprenticeship. Apprenticeship may feel counterintuitive in the face of intense workplace time pressures, but—with some modernizing—it can efficiently unlock the rapid capability building that today’s knowledge-based workforce requires. An emphasis on learning via apprenticeship can also contribute to providing a sense of meaning and purpose that increasing numbers of employees seek while simultaneously building a cohesive culture of continuous development that is the hallmark of leading companies in the knowledge economy.

Apprenticeship may feel counterintuitive in the face of intense workplace time pressures, but—with some modernizing—it can efficiently unlock the rapid capability building that today’s knowledge-based workforce requires.

Creating a broad apprenticeship culture isn’t easy. But even adopting some apprenticeship techniques and scaling them can help to unlock learning opportunities and democratize skill building in ways that formal programs cannot. In this article, we’ll explore the organizational case for instilling and investing in apprenticeship. We’ll describe the components of an apprenticeship model needed to modernize legacy constructs and how to scale it to a growing, diverse, and dispersed workforce. We’ll also provide practical steps to build momentum toward productive one-on-one learning and describe the personal shared responsibilities of teachers and learners. You may find that you already naturally employ many of these apprenticeship behaviors in your own working relationships.

What modern apprenticeship is—and isn’t

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 classic one-on-one model of apprenticeship, the learning happens as a result of physical proximity and observation. Experience has historically been equated with longevity, putting the responsibility to become the teachers on those with more seniority. This iterative learning approach allowed novices to learn through close observation, practice, feedback, and coaching, all of which are quite effective for building deep expertise and skill mastery.

In the knowledge economy, leaders like the manager in our example above find this traditional model taxing. The model is difficult to scale, and it also doesn’t work well as roles quickly evolve, teams become more far-flung and diverse, and learning needs continue to differ among employees. Our model of modern apprenticeship is neither built on vague or general coaching or feedback nor is it dependent on the manager, physical proximity, and what we can visually observe. Instead, it is a learning model that distributes apprenticeship skills and responsibilities throughout the organization. It represents a focused effort to intentionally build the same specific skills, habits of mind, and actions as those of a domain expert. A well-executed apprenticeship system would be distributed across the organization and exist in a company’s people-development universe as a complement to the mentorship and sponsorship provided by more senior trusted counselors (Exhibit 1).

Mentorship and sponsorship roles

To see what our concept might look like in a practical setting, let’s return to our earlier example of the problematic presentation. Imagine, after receiving the first disappointing draft, the manager realizes that she has asked the employee to complete a task that is beyond the employee’s current skills. She details specific feedback on necessary changes, then connects directly with the employee to lay out a new strategy for completing the work. “I’d like to help you become comfortable building this kind of presentation,” she might say. “Let’s look at what some of the issues are in the current draft, and then I’d like us to write the next draft together.”

As they work together on the new iteration, the manager does two things that are missing from the earlier example. First, she intentionally tries to build the employee’s skills with an eye to having the employee achieve the ability to work independently. Second, the manager models her thinking as she herself does some of the work preparing the new draft. She starts by openly sharing her thought process: Who will we be presenting to? How should we anticipate their concerns? What will we need to pull into the discussion if we need to address these concerns? To provide the employee with practice and to tease out ideas, she asks questions about specific people who will be attending the upcoming meeting. What’s critical in this approach is that the manager isn’t telling her employee what to do but instead working side by side with the employee and modeling how the manager herself approaches this kind of work.

When it comes to writing the next draft, the manager takes responsibility for laying out the key messages and asks her employee to build the supporting documentation for several of the slides. The manager might provide the employee with examples of similar presentations, clearly sharing her thoughts on how they might help the employee create a strong presentation. As they iterate nearer to a final draft, she’ll continue to model how she thinks about each step in the process and also continue to solicit the employee’s thinking to see how much the employee is learning, diagnose challenges, and build the employee’s readiness for bigger tasks.

A common response to applying this apprenticeship approach to closing employee skill gaps is “I’d love to, but where will I find the time?” Time pressures in the face of mounting manager responsibility are valid concerns, but we’d ask managers to bear two things in mind. First, your natural inclination was likely to take on the work yourself, so you were already planning to invest the time. We’re simply suggesting bringing a different intentionality to that investment: do the work in the spirit of teaching and helping a colleague to grow. Second, it feels almost trite to say that an investment in others saves you time in the long run, but we wholeheartedly believe this. Applied well, apprenticeship builds skills in others and increases a manager’s ability to delegate work with confidence that the outcomes will be positive.

Introducing apprenticeship into organizations

In our example you may see practices and behaviors that you already employ or observe managers around you using. Many of us naturally bring some apprenticeship behaviors to our own working relationships. It’s likely that you have anecdotal evidence of how apprenticeship creates better outcomes for individuals. We believe the organizational case for apprenticeship is equally compelling.

Organizations can take four steps to introduce apprenticeship as a powerful skill-building tool and to begin to reshape culture around the idea of continuous learning:

  1. Create a clear organizational expectation for both learning and teaching.
  2. Build apprenticeship skills in every employee.
  3. Identify the skills that individuals need to build.
  4. Be broad and inclusive about who can apprentice.

Create a clear organizational expectation for both learning and teaching

Across organizations, teams are employing more remote and hybrid working models and are becoming larger and more dispersed, with more diverse roles. This structural change is in part why formal, hierarchical learning programs are struggling. While apprenticeship can address this disconnect, it also requires rethinking how organizations distribute learning resources. A distributed apprenticeship model begins with the belief that everyone shares two obligations: the responsibility to learn and the responsibility to teach.

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

Apprenticeship environments flourish in organizations with strong learning cultures because those cultures emphasize the importance of every person taking ownership for their development and growing their skills. That personal accountability paves the way for introducing a broad apprenticeship model. By fostering a culture of intentional learners, organizations build in their employees a readiness to act as apprentices. Intentional learners embrace both the mindsets and skills that allow them to learn in every context, effectively seek and act on feedback, reflect on their progress, and practice. These same principles are the building blocks for apprenticeship relationships.

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 organization, even peers or junior colleagues who possess a skill that others need to build.2

Some specific actions can help organizations begin to establish the expectation that everyone is both a learner and a teacher and to hardwire those expectations into an organization’s culture:

  • Visibly position a CEO or senior leader who values learning and teaching, talks about both actively, and models his or her intentionality around both. Role modeling is essential to making the shift toward apprenticeship. Learning and teaching take real time and cannot thrive in a culture where leaders are not reinforcing their importance. 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.
  • Tilt the learning organization to support learner agency. Fostering a culture of intentional learning, and by extension apprenticeship, requires a shift from a learning function that prescribes learning to one that enables learner agency. This shift from prescription to support puts the learner, not the content, at the center of the strategy and creates environments and technology ecosystems that empower individuals to build the skills they need and care about. Learning is a skill, and helping individuals build it is critical, but if learners are hindered from acting as their own agents by prescriptive, legacy learning and development models, an organization will not achieve meaningful change. Exhibit 2 explores the “ins” and “outs” of learner agency.

    Breaking down these models begins with small changes. First, stop prescribing everything a learner should do. An organization should offer meaningful courses and learning journeys and may continue to require learning at specific career stages or for compliance, but it needn’t prescribe every action a learner should take. Then set expectations (for example, annual learning hours) and give learners choices in how to meet those expectations. Encourage them to pursue skill-building opportunities that interest them and begin to shift success metrics away from completion and toward consumption. The goal: providing rich learning experiences and inviting everyone in an organization to learn all the time without mandating specific actions.

  • Create incentives to encourage individuals to both teach and learn. Individuals should find it easy to identify skills that are important to the organization, assess themselves against those skills, express their intent to learn, formulate a plan, receive support, and be held accountable. Talent structures—everything from development plans to real-time feedback opportunities to the evaluation process itself—can reinforce the strength of an organization’s learning culture. As with any lasting culture change, senior leaders play a critical role in encouraging apprenticeship by modeling its importance: highlighting their own efforts to develop deeper apprenticeship skills and demonstrating how they are building these skills across their teams. Reinforce these communications through multiple channels—for example, in the language used to celebrate leaders promoted to new roles. While organizations can send clear signals that learning is valued by creating the expectation, opportunity, and accountability for learning, learners are far more likely to invest effort when they see support in the form of people, technology, content, and development.

    The same talent structures can also be used to establish the expectation to teach. Employees should know that their skills and expertise are valuable to the organization, but the seeds of an apprenticeship culture are firmly planted only when they also know that building similar expertise in others is expected, valued, and rewarded.

Moving an organization

Because apprenticeship is bidirectional, meaning information and learning flow back and forth between expert and novice, everyone must have the skills to both apprentice someone and be apprenticed.

Build apprenticeship skills in every employee

Traditional apprenticeship is ideally suited for tasks and skills that can be observed visually and, ideally, practiced in person. A critical component of modernizing apprenticeship is considering how it can be applied to knowledge workers and workplaces where skills are largely cognitive and less visually observable. To aid us in this effort, we have drawn on a body of learning-science research known as cognitive apprenticeship (for more, see sidebar “A cognitive-apprenticeship framework”).

The good news is that the skills required to apprentice cognitive tasks are remarkably similar to those used in traditional apprenticeship relationships. In our earlier example, you may have recognized behaviors you already employ. Not everyone will possess the innate ability to teach, nor will everyone naturally be able to model their thinking to the fine-grained level necessary for effective apprenticeship. That means that bringing modern apprenticeship into organizations requires building or activating those critical skills in every employee. Because apprenticeship is bidirectional, meaning information and learning flow back and forth between expert and novice, everyone must have the skills to both apprentice someone and be apprenticed.

Identifying apprentice skills is the first step. In our earlier example, you may have noticed that the manager spent time doing the following:

  • modeling how to approach the work instead of giving prescriptive directions to be followed
  • giving the apprentice manageable tasks to complete individually and contributing real effort to the project
  • providing samples (known as “scaffolding”) as supports and framing how to use those resources
  • asking the apprentice questions, providing an opportunity for learners to articulate their thinking and approach to the task
  • offering coaching and feedback as the apprentice works
  • assessing the apprentice’s progress toward independence and deciding how to add new skills, scope, and complexity to the apprentice’s work over time

It’s also possible to envision the skills that apprentices may employ:

  • actively observing the expert’s work and seeking to truly understand and model it
  • performing real-world tasks and iterating on them in response to feedback
  • leveraging support materials in their work
  • consistently moving ahead and taking action, even when the path forward seems unclear
  • articulating ideas and rationale, so the expert can see how the learner is internalizing instruction
  • being transparent when more help, guidance, and support are needed and providing the expert with feedback when challenges or instructions don’t make sense
  • pushing themselves to take on more responsibility and act with greater independence

Finally, real skill development is messy, requiring time, iteration, and deliberate practice. We concede that our example is illustrative and suggests a simple linear progression for the apprentice. An expert’s support effort is more likely to be variable, like turning a dial to adjust flow. As apprentices demonstrate more mastery of a task, experts can dial down their support. But when an apprentice is struggling or tasked with something beyond their current capacity, support should be turned up. Successful apprenticeship efforts grow from consistently and intentionally applying proven methods.

Begin the effort of building apprenticeship skills in all employees by creating formal capability-building opportunities, combined with appropriate on-the-job support, and offer them equitably across the enterprise. Leaders may want to start by focusing on a “minimum viable product” when it comes to apprenticeship skills as they begin to introduce this concept into an organization’s culture. For example, all colleagues could be exposed to the cognitive apprenticeship framework in their core training and be asked to identify areas where they would want to both learn as an apprentice and where they might apprentice others. Encourage employees to clearly explain how and why they are doing things when they work collaboratively with others, rather than giving vague feedback or simply doing the work themselves.

Leaders may be initially tempted to restrict skill-building opportunities to managers, and while managers certainly need these skills, they are not necessarily an organization’s best experts. By ensuring equal access to apprenticeship skill building, regardless of role or tenure, an organization may help catalyze the required culture change and begin to break down hierarchical notions that could ultimately undermine a true apprenticeship culture.

Identify the skills that individuals need to build

It bears repeating that apprenticeship is neither general coaching nor feedback. Instead, it is a focused effort aimed at intentionally building specific skills. Apprenticeship also isn’t simply about obtaining knowledge; it’s an effort to learn, think, and act as an expert does. As apprentices become increasingly skilled, they will function with more independence, until an expert’s support and direction are no longer needed.

Experts and apprentices alike should focus on building those skills that matter most to an organization’s strategy. A top-down exercise to articulate critical skills can serve as an anchor, helping both the experts and apprentices within an organization know how to invest their energy. By aligning skill targets, experts can better identify the skills they possess that are important for others and apprentices will know that their time is invested in developing the skills the organization needs.

The critical first step here is to conduct a strategic and holistic diagnosis of which skills will be required to drive value in the organization, based on its strategy and industry dynamics. Organizations that do this well draw a clear line between the business’s value-creation strategy and the specific capabilities required to deliver on it. Once this assessment is done organizations can compare the supply of each skill with strategic needs and translate the strategic view into more tangible guidance for individuals, including those skill areas that will be in greatest demand in the future.

Be broad and inclusive about who can apprentice

We’ve made several references throughout the article to the need for breaking down the implied hierarchy of apprenticeship. In a traditional apprenticeship relationship, expertise directly correlates to seniority, but in a modern setting, that is no longer true. When we consider the proliferation of new skills, technologies, tools, and even industries affecting organizations today, we are convinced that unpinning the idea that seniority equals expertise will be critical to successfully fostering a broad apprenticeship model. We believe that the best apprenticeship relationships are built on domain expertise. Mentorship and sponsorship may have a natural hierarchy, but the right person with whom to apprentice is the person who possesses the skills that you need to build. In some cases, that may be your manager, but often it may likely be a peer or junior colleague with more domain expertise.

Mentorship and sponsorship may have a natural hierarchy, but the right person with whom to apprentice is the person who possesses the skills that you need to build. In some cases, that may be your manager, but often it may likely be a peer or junior colleague with more domain expertise.

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

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. For leaders charged with overseeing learning, the impermanence of modern apprenticeship puts a premium on knowing the specific skills employees need to build and giving them access to a multiplicity of experts from whom they can learn.

Practically, organizations need to identify their experts and provide transparency so people can find one another. At its simplest, this could take shape as employees report their areas of expertise and capture that data on intranet profiles, internal email signatures, and the like. Another way is to encourage and reward employees for earning credentials that signify their expertise in particular areas. The rise of online credentialing platforms makes this easier than ever before. As expertise strategies grow, organizations can consider moving beyond self-reporting to more sophisticated methods of skills validation based on a comprehensive skills taxonomy.

Today’s upskilling and reskilling needs require organizations to respond with both speed and scale. 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 democratizes 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 organization together. At its core, it’s a deep relationship between people and gives organizations yet another tool through which they can foster cohesion, meaning, purpose, and connection.

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