Saturday, January 17, 2009

Knowledge vs. Experience

I’ve been doing a lot of reading other people’s blogs, trying to garner some inspiration to help me write my own posts, and I came across this one by Jurgen Appelo called Professionalism = Knowledge First, Experience Last. It really got me to thinking about my own skirmishes revolving around experience, knowledge, and the gap that seems to exist in between. Nearly every job opening requires that someone have previous experience as if it’s the most important dimension of the perfect employee. This practice has grown more and more popular, but I don’t think it results in better outcomes for the companies that exclude candidates because they don’t meet a pre-determined set of criteria.

After I graduated from college majoring in English, naturally all I wanted to do was write for a living. “What are you going to write?” people would ask, and I would say “Whatever someone will hire me to do.” No one wanted to hire me, as it turned out. Though I had knowledge of my chosen field in spades, I did not have any “real world” experience. I was crestfallen. I couldn’t prove myself unless I got a foot in the door. How was I supposed to gain experience if no one would hire me due to my lack of it?

An even better question to ask may be “Is the time spent in a given position (experience) proof of ability to tackle problems (knowledge)?

Appelo says that when he interviews people for a position:

I expect professional people to know what modern techniques and practices are. And if they don't know, then I'm not at all interested in their "X years of experience".

Later, he makes a poignant, if gruesome point:

Do you trust a doctor with diagnosing your mental problems if the doctor tells you he's got 20 years of experience? Do you still trust that doctor when he picks up a knife and ice picks, and asks you to prepare for a lobotomy? … Would you still be impressed if the doctor had 20 years of experience in carrying out lobotomies?

If given the choice between this doctor and, say, a second-year resident, which would you choose?

Pick a field or industry, almost any one, and all too often perfectly knowledgeable, talented people are passed over because they don’t have experience. Though there are entry-level positions available, in labor climates like this they are few and far between. On the flip-side of the same coin, I personally have known people with years of experience in a given field that lost their jobs and could not get hired into a similar post because they didn’t hold a degree. And in a category all by itself, everyone has seen completely inept people promoted to jobs beyond their grasp, simply because they logged a certain amount of years at a given company.

When rigid education or experience requirements rule out otherwise-knowledgeable candidates, companies end up losing-out on serious talent. Soon, they may have to start reconsidering the standards they’ve made for themselves. Despite recent financial turmoil the most experienced and largest generation ever seen in the workplace, the Baby Boomers, will be retiring over the years to follow. In the spaces left behind, some reorganization will have to take place and Generation Y (a.k.a. The Millennial Generation and the biggest one since the Boomers) will have to be part of that process. Because most of them have grown up with all the knowledge in the world just a few keystrokes away, they may be the most disproportionately knowledge-rich-but-experience-deficient generation ever. To fill the empty spaces that will be showing up in workplaces, hiring managers will have to start taking calculated leaps when it comes to the employees they choose.

Knowledge can’t be measured in years of experience. When that is more generally acknowledged in common corporate culture, it could result in a boost of productivity and innovation as fresh minds, flush with information and ready to prove their worth, tackle the problems of the day. Given the imminent departure of the Baby Boomers from the workplace, it’s going to be soon.

It could be another Renaissance in the making. The next question is: Who will be riding the wave and who will be left in the dust?

1 comment:

  1. What matters is that experiential learning is an important way to learn for some people. Those of us who do learn in the stultified classroom environment based on a bobbing head dispensing "knowledge" like so much Pez learn in other ways. Doing is often an effective method of learning.

    You can't tell someone's preferred method of learning right away, so you have to take what they say and do at face value. Many people with a lot of experience have spent that time learning, yes, but steeping themselves in a beige "conventional wisdom" that is utterly useless.

    Learning is dynamic, and a dynamic person is capable of using their experience wisely. The precise methods may surprise, however. As Lao Tzu said,

    Tao Te Ching 81: Manifesting Simplicity (Rosenthal)
    The sage seeks not to have a store
    of things or knowledge, for he knows,
    the less of these he has, the more he has,
    and that the more he gives,
    the greater his abundance.