Almost ten years ago I came to talk with a dear colleague who I hadn’t seen for a while. I think it was in October or November. She asked me what kind of project I was working on and I told her: I’m bailing out of the project I’ve been working on for almost two years, before my CV goes stale. As a consultant in a fast-moving area of expertise, I have to ensure a constant flow of new experience and professional growth. What will you do next? She said. I have no idea what the new year will bring. It’s exciting! I replied. What about you? We’ve just lost the contract I’ve been working on for many years and I have no clue what to do after New Year. I’m devastated!
There we were, in very similar situations with opposite reactions. How could that be? It was too big a difference to be explained only by me being a stubborn optimist. We ended up talking for the better part of an hour.
After a while we started to realise that it was about Knowledge vs. Skills.
Her professional standing was (apparently) founded on Knowledge, at least in her own mind. On her expertise in a specific field – a technology used only in parts of the retail business and where she had always worked with one client, her ex-employer. She was afraid that her knowledge wouldn’t easily be applied to other customers or other types of business.
My professional standing was founded in Skills: Structured problem solving, planning and facilitating workshops, requirements elicitation and management, communication orally and in writing etc. All capacities that can easily be transferred from one context to another. From one client to another. In any business. The hallmarks of a Jack of all trades (let’s forget about the second part of the expression for now, will we?).
Recently, I discussed the episode with a couple of bright and eager students and I decided to put letters on screen (or whatever “pen to paper” should be nowadays).
It is obvious to most of us that skills and knowledge are different, but how often do we think of just how they are different? And of what the consequences are?
- Skills are less dependent on context than knowledge is, and therefore easier to transfer – as shown in my story.
- Knowledge can be learned, through reading and courses. Skills are different. You may be borne with them but they need practicing to reach perfection. They are not found in any book, for sure.
- The half-life, the “best before”, of knowledge is shorter than for skills. New circumstances, new technologies, new business practices can quickly make your knowledge obsolete, while skills more easily can be applied in new contexts
So what are the consequences of these differences?
- Most of us have realised that we need to be learning constantly to stay ahead in our times of frantic change, but if we only learn new knowledge, the need for learning is greater and more pressing
- As skills take practicing, they are usually slower to develop. They take time and patience. And allowing for imperfection along the way
- Skills training doesn’t transfer as easily to e-learning as knowledge learning does. It takes more interaction to perfect, maybe remotely, but hardly with a system dialogue
- If you’re really fed up with your job but have a hard time imagining what to do instead, you are probably focusing too much on where you can apply your knowledge. Stop for a while to identify your strong skills and try to imagine where they can serve you well instead.
What do you think? Do you agree? Any similar experience? What if we add abilities to the mix, how do they differentiate from knowledge and skills (remember that English is only my second language ;-) )