How Microsoft is embracing interactive learning and skill validation

5 takeaways from the Skillable webinar with Microsoft on how they are using interactive learning and skill validation for targeted, specific skill development in AI, data, cybersecurity and more.

Microsoft requires no introduction, particularly within the technology sector where one of their credentials can provide confidence in a worker’s technical skills and willingness to continuously learn. With more organizations exploring skills-based approaches to hiring, upskilling, redeploying and assessing, the launch of Microsoft Applied Skills in November 2023 came at a timely point for the industry, putting skill validation and performance-based learning in the limelight.

Liberty Munson, Director of Psychometrics at Microsoft, recently sat down with Sarah Danzl, Chief Marketing Officer at Skillable, to discuss how interactive learning experiences and skill validation are empowering individuals to build business-aligned skills through hands-on, scenario-based learning.

Here are five learnings and the follow-up Q&A from the discussion.

1. Skills-first is changing the narrative.

Skills-first, or skills-based organizations are a hot topic right now and the transformation is top of mind for Liberty. As she explained, the skills-first mentality is becoming popular in the industry and it is evolving what’s expected of a credentialing program.

“The skills-first notion at a 30,000-foot level seems simple, but as you drill down, the practicalities are more complex. It’s causing a lot more organizations to talk about skills validation."
Liberty Munson, Director of Psychometrics, Microsoft

The skills-based organization is ultimately built on skills data, driving a greater need for high-fidelity, dynamic skills data. Hence why skills-based assessments are becoming the vernacular as technology is advancing to the point where learners can demonstrate their skills in applications, working on tasks, that they will have to do in their work every day. “That way, everyone can see that the assessment is measuring what it’s measuring, not having to infer from a multiple choice exam or similar,” Liberty said.

2. Cutting through the (learning) noise.

One major difference between performance-based learning that mimics specific tasks and scenarios and other forms of learning, is that it is hyper-targeted on the particular skills and work that a business needs. It provides a safe space for people to practice their skills and show they can perform it in the workplace. Although learning and development (L&D) is now a priority, with $363 billion being spent on training globally, that isn’t translating into business impact. Skill shortages are widening and threatening business continuity and risk. More money and learning content won’t solve this problem.

With the speed of change putting all organizations under pressure, it’s vital to have a form of learning that can upskill someone quickly, empower and give them confidence on-the-job and provide validation. Microsoft Applied Skills, as Liberty explained, validates a certain skill set in a particular scenario. “It involves someone going into the technology [a virtual lab-based assessment], doing the tasks that are specific to a project, to get the credential,” she added.

There are currently Microsoft Applied Skills credentials across a wide range of solution areas such as data and AI, digital and app innovation, security and infrastructure.

Microsoft recently announced Applied Skills with more than 20 credentials in the market across multiple solution areas, including infrastructure, digital and app innovation, data and AI, business applications, modern work and security. 

3. Scenario-based credentials target real-world problems.

A skill is learning that’s being used in the real world, and it’s the end goal for many L&D teams and people leaders. You want your people to have the right skills to do their jobs today and progress tomorrow. This is why more leaders are looking at scenario-based credentials to build the skills they need for current opportunities and emerging technology. When implemented well, performance-based learning can attract and retain talent, give greater insights into workforce skills (with more accurate skill data), accelerate the release of new projects or products and build greater business resilience and innovation.

Scenario-based skill validation is helping solve problems in identifying talent, releasing new products and workforce management.

4. Skill validation is a more inclusive way of assessing peoples' skills and potential.

Given that performance-based learning provides an additional type of learning opportunity for individuals, it can improve the accessibility of your learning program. The high-fidelity skill data delivered through skill lab assessments can level the playing field for career and learning opportunities in the future, helping more people use their proven skills to progress.

“Microsoft Applied Skills meet the learner where they’re at, enabling them to show that they have what it takes to work on projects that are important to their organization,” Liberty stated, “It is closer to what a person is going to be doing on the job, so it is more inclusive by design."
Liberty Munson, Director of Psychometrics, Microsoft

Exam-based anxiety, she also pointed out, can be eliminated in a virtual lab environment as it can feel more natural compared to a written exam.

5. Looking ahead: it's not just a degree, it's what you can do.

As more organizations experiment with novel ways to get the talent they need into their mission critical projects, we will see the importance of performance-based learning increase and become mainstream in L&D and training circles.

More organizations are moving away from the degree being the only way to assess someone’s ability to do a role, particularly in technology. This gives people more options in developing their skills, to unlock future career prospects with alternative credentials like Microsoft Applied Skills and Skillable’s Virtual IT labs.

Confident woman with skill validation

Getting started.

Speaking of the future, taking the long game will benefit your skills-based transformation for decades to come instead of becoming a flash in the pan. “Think of the end-point [when starting on a skills-based journey]. Hone in on your business-critical skills by role or project, prioritize the ones you want to build and measure and make sure you’re doing it in a scalable and maintainable way,” Liberty ended.

Making the right decisions now, with your learning strategy, your technology and the skills you focus on, will fundamentally change the trajectory of your organization.

Want to learn more? Watch the webinar on-demand or chat to a Skillable expert about bringing performance-based learning to your organization.

Follow-up Q&A with Liberty.

What would be the difference between Applied Skills Validation and the skills validation that many companies are incorporating into their ATS (applicant tracking system) and hiring practices?

  • Liberty Munson: The skill validation activities being incorporated into hiring practices leverage credentials, such as Applied Skills and Microsoft Certifications. Many organizations are looking beyond traditional degrees to identify talent that has the skills they need. So, to me the answer is that we’re providing hiring managers and organizations another way to validate skills that they don’t have to do themselves. While they may be doing some validation (think interviews), they are likely leveraging ML (machine learning) and/or AI (artificial intelligence) to review resumes and identify “skills” based on that information. This is less of a validation than a review unless the person has listed a credential on their resume (then, presumably, the skills have been validated by a third party).

What is the role of training services partner concerning applied skill?

  • Liberty Munson: Their role in Applied Skills is very similar to the role they play for exams. They provide the training to support the acquisition of the skill whether it’s being measured as an Applied Skill or as a certification. The difference is the breadth and, as a result, the length of the training. Applied Skills is narrower in focus so the training/learning experience will be shorter. We’re providing the same resources to our partners for Applied Skills as we do for our certification exams.

Working in project teams but certifying individuals, are you planning to extend certification to (potential) project teams to capture applying skills in real life?

  • Liberty Munson:  This is a question that I hear fairly often. I’m not sure if we’ll be able to extend our certification exams to teams, but I think there are some opportunities for leveraging the Applied Skills credential type for this purpose, especially as the telemetry that would allow us to determine the level and types of contribution each person is making continues to improve. The complication right now is being able to access that telemetry, parse it and evaluate/score it in a meaningful way. As technology continues to improve, doing team-based assessments that provide a fair, valid, reliable and meaningful evaluation of teamwork skills becomes more possible.

What are three things to consider when getting started with a skills-based, interactive environment for assessing and validating skills?

1. Liberty Munson: Begin with the end in mind, especially as it relates to the customer experience:

    1. How will you communicate the skills that you are validating?
    2. What is a skill in your taxonomy?
    3. What is your taxonomy?
    4. At what level is a skill? Even with a skill structure, such as [verb]+[subject], “configure virtual machines” is at a much different level than “administer Azure.”

So, defining what a skill is a very important early step in this process. How many skills is too many? You won’t have the answers to all of these questions, but these types of questions should help you think through what the customer experience should be, which will help you start to design your skills-based program.

2. Consider what types of integrations and with who that you’ll need to be able to design, develop, deliver, and maintain the validation experience. Who needs to be involved and when? What information do they need to partner with you?

3. Balance Skills-Based Learning and validation with knowledge-based learning and possibly validation. Validation of knowledge may be less important given the rational for moving to a skills-based environment.

a. Skills-Based Learning: Prioritize skill-building through practice and application. Candidates actively gain hands-on experience, preparing them for the workforce. This approach is essential in today’s workspace, where the ability to apply knowledge is crucial.

b. Knowledge-Based Learning: While skills are vital, comprehension of the key concepts remains essential. Strike a balance between knowledge-based experiences (emphasizing comprehension) and skills-based experiences (focusing on application).

How long are your credential programs typically? Do you lean solely on on-demand or is there any live aspect?

  • Liberty Munson: You can earn an Applied Skill by passing one online interactive (lab based) assessment. For qualified individuals, these labs take ~45-60 minutes to complete, but they can take up to 3 hours (2 hours are automatically provided; an additional hour can be requested through the interface). They do not expire. Associate certifications typically require passing one exam, but we have a few that require passing two exams. Experts require having the appropriate associate and passing the expert level exam. Exams are 120 (without labs)-140 (with labs) minutes (seat time). Certifications expire after one year and can be renewed through our online certification renewal assessment.

How is identity verification handled with Applied Skills assessments?

  • Liberty Munson: You must be logged into your Learn profile to take an Applied Skills assessment. We are planning to integrate Entra ID, which will provide a more robust identity verification process.

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