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Parkin Space: Work Skills are the Tip of the Iceberg


I have many hidden talents that rarely get sold to my clients. I am a creative photographer, a talented chef, and a competent web coder. I can survive in the wilderness indefinitely, can speak German, and some Dutch and Swedish, and a little American. I am a skilled salesman, and an effective diplomat. I can put together business plans and brand plans, raise venture capital, re-wire a house, and, when inebriated, play the blues harp. I have other talents that I’d rather not go into here. So what? If they are of no direct relevance to the job I am doing, they get put on ice, and effectively cease to exist. Or do they?

In any company, each employee has a rich set of talents that never makes it to the surface in the work environment. Frequently, we “inherit” a team that we had no hand in hiring in the first place, and about whom we know little. We might, at annual review time, look at the employee file to get a better insight. But that file may only tell us about the person’s education, skills, certifications, and work experience. It tells us nothing about the employee’s alter ego, the “real” person who appears after leaving the office.

These days the recruitment process, which is supposed to be getting more and more rigorous, tends to ignore anything but the most salient facts about applicants. When I applied for my first job decades ago, there was a whole page of questions about my outside interests, hobbies, and sports. Today, those questions are considered either invasive of privacy or quite irrelevant to the evaluation of job suitability. In the US, most CVs (sorry, resumes) should be only one page long – two at the outside – if they are to be accepted at all. Companies used to recruit the person, now they hire a finite skill set. The incidental skills and talents rarely get noticed or catalogued, so the total capacity of our workforce stays hidden.

I am not talking about Joan in Accounts, who speaks some Russian, so gets seconded to the sales team for the annual Moscow Trade Show. I am more concerned with the fundamental motivational, creative, and intellectual drivers that allow people to become linguists, musicians, programmers, amateur dramatists, community mentors, orchid-breeders, or moonlighting e-commerce entrepreneurs. It’s their learning skills that we may be under-exploiting, though their learned skills may clearly have some benefit.

We are populating our companies with tips of icebergs, without knowing what resources lie below the surface. That may have been acceptable in the 1980s and '90s, but in the post knowledge-economy Naughties it’s a mistake. This is a decade of increasingly perishable overt competencies. The most valuable skills that an employee can have today are the ability and curiosity to peer over the horizon and the ability to learn, and unlearn, rapidly and efficiently.

As globalisation is thrust upon us, and as networked communication becomes the norm, the ability of an organisation to rapidly evolve in new and creative ways becomes vital. The routine hierarchical “division of labour” approach to getting things done seems less relevant than the “organic flux” approach in which project teams coalesce then dissolve as needed. A key to the success of this is people who are capable of changing their focus, role, and operational skill-set as they move from one project to the next, or as they work on multiple projects simultaneously.

In the US, the digital generation is rising rapidly through the ranks, because they see ways to operate that those with an industrial-economy mindset cannot conceive. Those people older than their late twenties are struggling to change their own concepts of how organizations work.

For trainers, this raises a few complications, and many opportunities. First, an annual skill-gap analysis is of little value, but a tactical project skill-gap analysis might be handy. Second, the idea of scheduling the training of groups of people seems less sensible than creating individualized ad-hoc learning opportunities. Third, there may be a whole slew of new “learning” skills to be defined and taught. Fourth, there’s an evolving project management – and project participation – field, with its own skill-sets, to be defined and taught. Finally there is the growing need to train people in the skills of managing an organization in permanent flux.

As organisational barriers and processes start to flex and the crystalline nature of an employee’s contract with the company becomes more plastic, perhaps the idea of work-life balance changes to one of work-life integration. Instead of superficially segregating one’s skills into work skills and private skills, perhaps companies will start to look a little deeper at what core competencies people have. Identifying “root skills” that can be cultivated in multiple directions may spawn a better recruitment/promotion model than merely looking at the certificates stapled to a CV.

* Read more of Godfrey Parkin's columns at his Parkin Space


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