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)

What Is Knowledge?

Google’s definition of knowledge: facts, information, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. Let’s discuss each clause separately.

Knowledge
Knowledge

The underlying notion of knowledge is going through a transformation. Memorization of ‘facts and information’ is less important, and building skills is more important. All possible content is available to us through the internet, social media, and other networks instantaneously on computer and mobile devices. In the not so distant future, implanted devices will interact with our normal thought processes and create an ‘augmented reality’. (Love this video on what this might seem like; be forewarned it is frightening, but realistic .) Why is there rote-memorization in education? Should the focus be on building skills to find, synthesize, and discuss ‘facts and information’?

The ability to mix technical knowledge with solving real-world problems is the key.[i]

Look at the success of IBM’s Watson – a supercomputer that won Jeopardy and beat the top chess player in the world. Winning Jeopardy requires recalling facts and information in a wide array of subjects and winning chess requires cycling through a significant number of iterations for each move. In a chess match, a supercomputer beats the best human player, but a team of a supercomputer and a human player beats a supercomputer by itself (at least for now).[ii] Of course, humans build the computer and program the underlying algorithms. Players now learn chess in new ways. They optimize the computer for crunching out calculations, know how to process the data, and spend more time reading their opponent. IBM has just come out with mainstream application that utilizes Watson to bring ‘big data’ analysis to the average user.[iii] Learning to ask the right questions is paramount.

Memorizing a foundation of ‘facts and information’ is a requirement in certain professions, such as historians, doctors, and lawyers; a common thread in their responsibilities includes being able to recite facts and stats, classify elements, or identify precedence on the spot. Although there are huge online content reservoirs, such as Web-MD and Lexus Nexus, which can be accessed when needed. Nevertheless, a ‘theoretical or practical understanding’ remains critical in these high stakes professions.

Knowing ‘facts and information’ is required for developing a perspective. You cannot make an effective argument without a sufficient understanding of the prevailing schools of thought. Still, immediate access to huge reservoirs of facts and information online accelerates this process significantly. The notion of spending days in a library rummaging through printed copies of journals, periodicals, and books is over (still remember the awful, time-consuming process). Now you can  follow new ideas in social media, conduct Google searches, and access websites of information distributors. Digital content is much easier to manage – make comments, highlight quotes, and copy and transfer to other platforms.

Understanding is key. But not superficial, light-bulb moment of understanding. In STEM, true and deep understanding comes with the mastery gained through practice.[iv]

Here are some thoughts for moving forward with a new concept of knowledge:

  • Promote self-guided learning. Learning has become a lifelong commitment because of the rapid adoption of new technologies and dissemination of huge amounts of content. Professionals must keep their skills sharp with new applications. They must also follow the latest trends by following influencers in social media, taking courses, and reading articles, books, and blogs.
  • Focus on skills required to manage, process, and analyze information and facts, as opposed to memorization. Computers are better at memorization and number crunching; humans are better at making decisions and showing compassion and empathy (soft skills).
  • Competency based learning instead of the traditional credit hour model. With online learning, you can learn at your own pace and utilize many different resources.
  • Use the latest technology in all levels of education. It is essential to put the latest hardware and software applications into the hands of students – a generation that is expected to use it.

[i] Tyler Cowen. Average is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation. (Penguin, New York 2013).

[ii] … (page 81)

[iii] http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/09/16/ibm-offers-a-data-tool-for-the-mainstream-with-watsons-help/

[iv] http://online.wsj.com/articles/barbara-oakley-repetitive-work-in-math-thats-good-1411426037

Credentials Complement Skills

I had a discussion with a professor about a Skills Based Approach, something I hope you are familiar with by now (if not check out the website: www.skillsbasedapproach.com). I expressed why I think skill sets should be the focal point in career planning and development and the professor made a point worth further exploration: the impact of credentials.

A broad Wikipedia definition for a credential is: a “qualification, competence, or authority issued to an individual by a third-party”. In a purely professional context, credentials are degrees, certifications, licenses, and badges.

  • College degrees are the staple in summarizing a professional background, and currently have a major influence on your career path. However, professionals might find alternative approaches to learn skills because of the enormous cost of a college degree – it has almost doubled in the past ten years. There has been some policy discourse brewing on the high cost of a college degree, especially with public universities because they are partially funded by states[i]. Personally, I recommend supporting the movement of free online courses and finding ways to shorten a typical bachelor degree to less than four years – at least the number of years a student pays tuition. The ball has started rolling: you can get credits when you take the latest offering of free online courses (MOOC IIs). Colleges offering these free credits are betting that you will commit to taking their more advanced paid courses in the future.[ii]
  • Certifications are used to establish a proficiency and/or understanding of what is needed to conduct business in certain professions. With the rapid pace in the adoption of new technologies, professionals are required to learn new technologies by taking online course and then passing a certification test. Certifications are also widely used in accounting, finance, medical, and law professions.
  • Online badges are becoming increasingly relevant because Mozilla is pioneering the development of technology necessary to make them universally accepted. A powerful new feature of an online badge is a mechanism for a third-party to verify the credentials they issue. This will have a major influence in learning new skills because more educators can establish credibility; professionals can: choose to learn skills from a larger pool of educators, target certain professions or skills more precisely, and save a considerable amount of money.

Skill sets and credentials complement each other; in fact, with a Skills Based Approach, credentials might be the preferred way to validate skills (as suggested in the validation stage). A skill might have a one to one relationship with a credential; for example, a credential received for passing an online certification for ASP .Net validates the skill of web design (and sub-skill ASP .Net). Skills might have a many to one relationship with a credential; for example, a degree in business management validates basic skills of accounting, finance, marketing, and management.

I standby the assertion that all professionals should plan and develop their careers based on a skill set. I also think, as you build an expertise with skills, you should find ways to use credentials to validate your experience and knowledge with skills. Online badges will become the primary way to validate skills on all professional website services; we are currently waiting for the technology to catch up.


[i] Wessel, David. “Obama, Rubio Take On Colleges.” Wall Street Journal, 02/21/2013

[ii] Lewin, Tamar. “Public Universities to Offer Free Online Classes for Credit.” The New York Times, 01/23/2013

Badge Concept: Professional Website

Badges: ProfessionalWebsite
What a badge might look like

Professionals often have to verify their proficiency in a technology, language, or skill; we will refer to the presentation and validation of this proficiency as a “badge”. Visually speaking, a badge could be a background image with overlaying content about the proficiency and perhaps a link to a third-party verification.

A professional website currently promotes the presentation functionality of “badges”. The use of skills is already tightly woven into the framework of a professional website, along with particular IT skills, languages, and certifications – much of the content and linkages related to a “badge” are already in place. However, the validation integration has not been developed yet.

The validation integration would be similar to other web service verification applications. For example, the verification process that a website is secure. When you make an online purchase, you will often see a logo that says the webpage is secure (before you send your credit card information) – basically saying a third-party SSL certificate has been installed properly. Typically, this involves placing some JavaScript provided by the third-party verifier onto a website. Alternatively, in a simpler approach, the badge may just have a URL to the third-party verifier. In both implementations, a third-party company actively verifies the proficiency – making it a more reliable, standard verification.
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