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Skills-based approach in companies: what are we talking about?

Louise Michel |

The term “skills-based approach” is very popular in higher education and corporate training. In this article, we describe what is behind this concept and how an organization can benefit from it. We will also share some practical advices on how to successfully implement this approach within your organization.

1 – The different approaches in corporate training

There are three distinct approaches in corporate training.

First, the content-based approach puts the learning resource at the heart of the training. Training therefore starts with a list of available subjects and contents. The role of the training teams in the organization is to connect the available content with the learners who could benefit from it.

The objective-based approach is based on standardized tests aimed to validate the acquired knowledge. In this approach, the instructor refers to the trainee’s learning objectives, such as a certification, to plan the training and assessment activities.

Finally, the skills-based approach (SBA) seeks to develop the ability of the learner to use a set of assets to solve a complex real-life situation, produce an expected result or face challenges. These assets can be cognitive: knowledge, technical skills, methodological skills, relational skills, emotional resources, etc., but also external: books, tools, documents, or a network of experts. We will see below what are the interests of this approach for the learner and for the organization.

2 – History of the skills-based approach

The skills-based approach finds its origins in the United States1 in the 60s. As the Soviet Union was ahead in the space race, the American government wanted to refresh its education systems in order to develop learning paths that would give learners the required knowledge base to integrate into a field or a practice. The movement aimed to improve curricula offer to better meet the needs of the labor market. The goal was no longer to teach the subject itself, but to help the learner to master real-life situations that will happen in the workplace. 

According to other researchers2, the initial version of the SBA was designed in the industry in the 60s to assess skills of manual workers. 

Quickly SBA reached the education fields. First in the United States, Australia and then in Europe. The United Kingdom, Switzerland and Belgium were among the first countries to rethink their education systems according to this approach. As a result, decision-makers have moved from a culture of objectives to the culture of skills, although they are not always able to distinguish one from the other.

3 – Interests of the skills-based approach 

SBA puts the learner in the heart of training and considers that they are able to develop the expected skills. The skills and abilities worked and acquired are clearly identified, bringing more meaning to the training. The trainee is responsible for their learning, and is active in the acquisition of target knowledge, skills or know-how. The instructor becomes an enabler who provides them with the necessary tools.

There are many benefits for both learners and company. The SBA enables each person to know where they are in their job requirement and skills objectives, and thus, to identify the remaining path to achieve their goals. They know on which subjects to focus in their training. The company is given a real-time snapshot of the available and missing skills in its workforce, making it easier to anticipate training, recruitment, and mobility needs and to relate them to a global forward planning of employment and skills.

4 – How can you implement a skills-based approach in your company ?

The change from a content- or objective-based approach to a skills-based approach should come from a global thinking and implies a paradigm shift for the company. The HR department is the first to be affected. They are indeed responsible for creating the job descriptions in terms of skills objectives for every position in the company, with the help of all the human and material resources available.

To avoid starting from scratch, they have the possibility to use available standard models. For example, ESCO is an open-access classification of skills, qualifications, and professions set up by the European Commission. 

However, these standard classifications might be incomplete, and the titles used for jobs and skills often differ from those used in the company. It will therefore be necessary to complete and adapt them to the organization with the help of training teams and managers.

Once the skills have been listed and prioritized, the training teams will group them into themes to be worked on.
Here are a few concrete tips for a successful deployment of a SBA: 

  • Build job descriptions with the concerned experts and update them regularly
  • Finely divide skills repositories into problem-situations so that they depict situations that trainees will meet in their jobs. It is interesting to use verbal phrases to define the competences, for example “I know how to lead a distance meeting”.
  • For each skill, give situations that will ultimately enable the problem-situation to be mastered
  • Prepare instructors to change their approach to teaching: from a classic knowledge transmission to facilitation for skills acquisition 


1Clarence Loosli (2016) Analyse du concept “approche par compétences”, dans Recherche soins infirmiers, 114 pages (

2 Gérald Boutin (2004) L’approche par compétences en éducation : un amalgame paradigmatique, dans Connexions, Ed. Erès, 160 pages (

3 ESCO, classification européenne des aptitudes/compétences, certifications et professions (