Why (How) to Think in Skills…

I have always had a broad perspective of skills, often depicting them as the foundation of learning and verb of knowledge (phases I have used over the years). I understand my perspective is not shared by everyone (yet), though it is gaining momentum. Thought it might be useful to make a case for my all-in investment with skills, competencies, and related methods and applications.

Skill Types
Skill Types

A few years back, I searched and got my hands on an unscrubbed database of skills. It had about 4,500 skills. Since then, I have been slowly rebuilding the database to add definitions, categories, and incorporating them into a search. The benefit is I have a single database feeding each of the Skills applications: Skills Based Approach℠, Skills Label™, and Skill Syllabi℠; practitioners and learners work with the same set of skills. It is a never-ending process as skills are being added all the time.

Often when a new technology is introduced, there are also new associated skill(s). A great example is mobile internet and cloud computing and all the skills associated with using this technology. According to Future of Jobs survey “mobile internet, cloud technology” (22%) is the top technologic drivers already impacting employees’ skills. Big data, processing power, new energy supplies and technologies, internet of things and sharing economy are other drivers mentioned in the survey.

A great resource to understand the demand for new skills is the Future Work Skills 2020, which identified some of the emerging transferable skills (such as transdisciplinary, cognitive load management, cross cultural competency, virtual collaboration, design mindset, social intelligence, sense making, and computational thinking).

The chart above shows a sample from the database. There are five skill types, with a total and percent representation in this sample. The chart is meant to show proportion of skills assigned to each type and introduce five skill types.

Technical skills are what most people think of when talking about skills. They are unique to a subject or discipline, which we apply in a career and sometimes work towards mastery in. Of course, this type of skill holds the largest share, has the most new skills added, and has the biggest swings in demand for related skills.

Transferable skills transcend across disciplines and subjects. Theses skills are becoming increasingly important as workers are changing careers more frequently. Building competencies with these skills makes it easier to fill skill gaps when pivoting into another career.

Soft skills are communication and interpersonal skills and behaviors. Like any other skill, we can deliberately practice them in our experiences. Many significant practitioners (leaders and managers too), are saying soft skills will have more of an impact on success than technical skills. (I am a big fan of Travis Bradberry’s work on emotional intelligence.)

Thinking skills are the foundation of learning gained from education and higher education. With proper thinking skills, many of the technical and transferable skill can be learned. Thinking skills also make life more meaningful and allow for persons to interpret arts and the humanities. (In his book) Derrick Bok says: “professors almost unanimously agree teaching students to think critically is the benchmark of higher education”. Finally, these 8 skills do not change much so it is critical is to understand the methods and application behind them.

Art skills are those related to arts and the humanities. There is a lot of skill required to become an expert in these fields. Some is acquired through application and some through natural talent or inspiration. Skills are also needed in the interpretation of arts and humanities. Understand the slight change from STEM to STEAM, a worthy addendum.

Why Skills?

  • Occupations or specialties are changing too fast: “The most in-demand occupations or specialties did not exist 10 or even five years ago, and the pace of change is set to accelerate.” The Future of Jobs – World Economic Forum
  • Skills are tangible, something to talk about. They are: Definable, standardized, portable, searchable, measurable, and flexible.
  • Skills are the ‘verb’ in knowledge. It is the action part. Skills define how we think, converse, problem solve, create, engineer, write, debate, play and so on. They are the underlying foundation of all learning.
  • Displacement of jobs due to automation and AI. Need to build skills unique to human capabilities. Identify and acquire skills that complement these new technologies. “Everything that can be automated will be automated.” (Pew Research Digital Life in 2025)

Competency Based Learning

Competency Based Learning (“CBL”) has been talked about in education and higher education as an efficient, effective way of learning for many years now.  CBL is efficient by letting student move on when they can prove a desired competency; learning evaluations are less dependent on how much time is spent in a classroom and the established credit hour system. CBL is effective by helping every type of student: 1) underperforming students get added resources or support to help them reach a competency; 2) average students control how much time they spend learning and may compete with students with more ability if they choose to; 3) high performing students get to keep moving forward when they prove a competency.

Personal Growth
Personal Growth

Our traditional education system has moved towards CBL with the adoption of Common Core standards. The standards are largely based on advancing basic skills in English, Math, Social Studies, and Science. The learning expectations are explicit and accessible. When the resources tied to the standards catch up (particularly assessments), students learn at their own pace. In the future, we see less learning expectations based on grade, age, and demographics.

In higher education, between 2015 and 2016, the number of CBL programs grew from 50 to 500 CBL programs (according to Tech Crunch) and this number will continue to grow. Higher education institutions have been trying to reduce expenses for decades with little success; students owe over 1 trillion dollars in debt. CBL is one answer. Rather than focusing solely on cost cutting and expense side of the equation, institutions adopt CBL with the potential of reducing the path to attainment of a degree or credential. Student pay one to three years of tuition rather than four.

I am not suggesting replacing any of the learning that takes place in a four-year degree, just the time it takes. According to one study (National Survey of Student Engagement), students spend an average of 17 hours a week studying. (In my opinion) the amount of weekly coursework should be at least 40 hours (a typical work week) and could easily reach 80 hours a week. (Something I remember experiencing while working towards an MBA, much of it was social and relationship building.) I also think traditional higher education institutions are going to join the progressive ones in adopting these CBL programs.

Incoming students should take assessments and complete projects when they start a program. Find out where they are, then give them the right learning program. For example, if a student is versed in programming, there is no sense in spending three semesters taking the introductory courses.

I propose a suite of applications, what I call a “Learning Scaffold for Skills”, as a platform for CBL programs. At the lowest level, there is Skills Label™ where learning expectations are defined for discrete tasks. On the display, users are directed to a resource or project and have all the information needed to complete the task. The learning is based on skills, competencies, and focus values. It is possible to incorporate learning standards into the labels too. Finally, a teacher or professor easily modifies a series of labels for each student to personalize the learning experience.

I see a series of labels as an ideal way to represent what is required in a CBL program. Students go through each of the labels, comprised of projects and / or assessments and upon verifiable completion demonstrate a required competency. Students work on the projects at their own pace.

To represent a collection of these labels at a course level, there is the app Skill Syllabi℠. A teacher or professor creates a syllabus which has all the sections of a standard syllabus plus sections for skills and competencies, skill labels, and tasks.

At the program level (and a platform for lifelong learning) is Skills-Based Approach℠.  Students import all the tasking in the labels and syllabi directly into their Skills Based Approach accounts. Then, they can move through the four stages of Skills Based Approach (an established methodology) to acquire the skills.

This suite of apps become a platform for Competency Based Learning programs (both in education and higher education).

Use Career Planning To Find Happiness

Why are so many Americans unhappy with their jobs? I watched the NBC nightly news and heard the following:

Americans seem to hate their jobs in record numbers today. Gallup surveyed 150,000 workers. Only thirty percent are into their jobs. Fifty-two percent openly admit they are not. And eighteen percent say they are actively disengaged, with a permanent case of the Mondays.[1]

I was surprised by these numbers, though I guess they cover a wide audience. It is difficult to find work and many professionals have to settle on a job to pay back college loans and/or support a family.

One of the driving forces for adopting a skills-based approach is to develop an effective career plan. I believe your career is an opportunity to make a once in a lifetime contribution. I agree with what Seth Godin says: you should become a “linchpin” (not merely a “drone”) and “an artist” – someone who creates fresh, insightful work. I also think you should find happiness with your career.  I passionately back these two assertions.

I think for many professionals the source of the problem is not conducting enough career planning during the formative stages of their life – high school, college, and young adulthood. Many young professionals do not have a firm grasp on their strengths, inner motivations, and personality traits. Moreover, they do not formulate an action plan to reach their career aspirations. In the planning stage of a skills-based approach, there are four strategies to help develop an effective career plan.

Cleary professionals cannot always find a job that makes them happy. Sometimes professionals are forced to take a job solely as a source of income. And some jobs have some unpleasant and pleasant responsibilities mixed together. A career plan (from a skills-based approach) is meant to be a short-term guide and a long-term proposal, so the concept is to move towards career pursuits that will make you happy in the long run. You are developing a skill set, which you commit to develop throughout your career. If you are working at a job just to pay the bills, then figure out ways to build skills while you are working (taking on projects) and/or after you are working (an online course, volunteering, etc.).

Another advantage in adopting a skills-based approach is planning your career based on a skill set rather than careers and degrees. Professionals can employ various actions to build skills. In combining these actions, they create the most cost-effective career plan.  A skills-based approach suggests building transferable skills that can be utilized across disciplines and subjects – so professionals become more marketable in a constantly changing job market.

Finally, I think having a plan to reach career aspirations demonstrates vision – a motivator when someone is working what seems to be a dead-end job.

Skills-Based Approach
Skills-Based Approach is a methodology centered on the development of a skill set over a career; it is a progression in four stages: planning, building, presenting, and validating. Each stage has proposed ways to achieve its objectives. The beauty of a skills-based approach is its simplicity and flexibility.

[1] NBC Nightly News 6/24/2013.

Stepping Stone Jobs

I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal about how underemployment is going to remain persistent even as the economy recovers.[i] Underemployment refers to skilled workers doing jobs that do not require their level of education. For example, someone who recently graduated with a degree in marketing who is working in a coffee shop making a little more than minimum wage. There are a few ways practicing a skills-based approach alleviates the problem of underemployment.

First, you define your professional experience and knowledge as a skill set rather than as a degree or career so you are more flexible to adapt to the current job market. Your skill set is comprised of transferable and technical skills. Transferable skills – such as writing, computational thinking, and problem solving – can be utilized across disciplines and subjects. You should be able to construct a list of many different career paths based on your skill set. Perhaps you have to spend some time learning a technical skill before applying to a career you had not targeted earlier. Let me provide an example.

Jim graduated with a degree in marketing and is seeking a marketing position setting up website promotions. There were few openings for this type of position; however, through his job searching he realized interpreting web analytics is a hot opportunity. He has no prior experience with web analytics but could learn it fairly quickly by taking an online course. And many of the skills he learned while getting his marketing degree are relevant for this opportunity. So by adding a technical skill of web analytics to his skill set, Jim increases his chances of becoming employed.

Second, you find ways to make any job an opportunity to develop your skills; your job becomes a stepping stone to something in the future.  Many young professionals have to settle for a job because they need to earn an income, so they find a job that is not necessarily aligned with their capabilities or career objectives. Nevertheless, no matter what the job, they should find ways to build skills. For instance, using the example above,  a coffee shop employee volunteers to build a website that promotes the coffee shop for free (there are many free website builders to choose from); so a seemingly dead-end job becomes an opportunity to build web development and marketing promotion skills.

Third, you build the skills necessary to reach a longer term career on your own time. So as you are working at the coffee shop to earn an income, you spend the afterhours building an expertise with your skills.  You may choose to volunteer, take an online or on-site course, or read a book to advance you expertise with skills. Whatever way you choose, you become more marketable for future opportunities by fine-tuning your skills. Building skills is more efficient and accessible and less expensive than adding degrees.

You can learn more about a skills-based approach by visiting the website: www.skillsbasedapproach.com

[i] Ben Casselman, “College Grads May Be Stuck in Low-Skill Jobs,” Wall Street Journal, March 26, 2013.

Learning Methodologies

There are ways to apply a skill using different methodologies, something developed by experts who have practiced and tuned them through iteration in their experiences. You might learn a methodology while taking a course in college, though they are usually theoretical and teach you the overarching principles. So the best ways to learn methodologies are through companies that use them in their everyday business and having a mentor is even more effective because, through your interpersonal interactions, you learn the intricacies of its application. I think this is one reason why universities champion the use of internships in their curriculum.

A few years back, I taught college interns some of the methodologies I had been using in the development of an application – the flagship product of the business. I shared with them the methods of creating new versions of the application, including the whole production cycle – development, quality control, and dissemination. After learning my methods, they can choose whether or not to use them later in their career but they will at least have a perspective.

As I think about how I apply my skill set, I realize that I use methodologies from scattered sources throughout my career. For example, here is a table that illustrates the methods I use related to my skill of website development:



Object-Oriented Programming Learned about it from a course in   college, applied it through practice in the early applications I developed.
Nomenclature for Naming Variables Learned it from a course in college.
Use of Functions, Procedures Conceptualized it first in a course   in college, and then learned more about it by viewing examples in programs   and books.
Web Page Structure Reviewed the structure of other websites, read a book   about search engine optimization.
Applying Style Learned the use of CSS hands-on and   by reading a book.
Planning/Scoping The Application Learned this methodology from my mentor, who was meticulous
in his planning.

During the building stage, as you are learning and building an expertise with a skill, you should understand the subtle or apparent differences in the methodologies you are learning. You might have to use a particular methodology because it is required to by your employer; however, later in your career, you have the opportunity to improve it. Once you become an expert with a skill, you will have your own methodologies that you practiced in your experiences.