Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Experience vs. Expertise…what Matters More?

In this blog post, I would like to discuss the question I often ask myself, what is relatively more important in today’s technologically fast paced world, “experience” or “expertise”?, and if one is more important than the other, then what are the implications for Tech companies…if any? Importance, by the way (btw) as measured by value to a company’s stakeholders (customers, employees, and shareholders).

When I talk about experience, a funny often repeated comment/quote from the first successful comedy sitcom on Indian TV, “Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi” (literal meaning: 'This Thing Called Life') comes to my mind….here Satish Shah played a lottery seller(dealer) and often exclaimed "Thirty years ka experience hai!", meaning "I have 30 years experience"…..and implying, having had 30 years under the belt…”how could one question me or my decision making”.  To the Gen Y (aged between 18 and 29 years) readers….I may have already lost you….you might be wondering ”Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi”…what the heck is that??.  BTW, I tried this on a Gen Y and the premise proved correct!!! If in doubt…please consult the more experienced (elders) in your friends and family circle.

Getting into the topic…would like to follow the guidance from a famous but anonymous quote, ”words have meaning and names have power”….so let us start by deciphering the meaning of the terms under discussion….

ex·pe·ri·ence: Merriam-Websters (why this dictionary and not any other…simple this is the first dictionary when you perform a Google search) defines experience as 1 a: direct observation of or participation in events as a basis of knowledge b: the fact or state of having been affected by or gained knowledge through direct observation or participation

Hmm…interesting (for me too), so the end game is “gaining knowledge”…and the “how” is through direct observation or participation….i.e. hands-on work.

ex·per·tise: the same dictionary sends you on a wild goose chase when you try to find the meaning of expertise….…it states 2. the skill of an expert.  So now we need to look up the meaning of an expert.  ex·pert:  The expert is 1: obsolete : experienced 2: having, involving, or displaying special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience.

All the more interesting…so at some point in history having expertise was viewed simply as someone who had gained knowledge through direct observation or participation (i.e. through experience)…this view is now obsolete and it is recognized that special skills and knowledge could actually be derived from training, of-course it could be derived from experience as well.  Net-net, staying with the dictionary definition….expertise is having the right skills/knowledge (“what”)….and experience is one of the “how’s”  to gain the skills.

In case you are starting to wonder, why this question is relevant?….it is, because there is a generational demographic shift underway in the global workforce.  Gen Y is here and surely making its presence felt.  Gen Y as producers of goods and services are technology savvy, well educated, highly skilled, willing to learn, motivated, collaborative, and highly entrepreneurial. They are idealistic, optimistic and as they enter the workforce we are witnessing a paradigm shift - a shift from experienced professionals to experientially learned younger faction forming a ever increasing percentage of the workforce. As consumers of products and services, they demand technologically advanced and “connected” solutions, also as consumers they are increasingly conscious about the environment.. 
One thing that the Gen Y clearly does not have is “years of experience”….and this creates a tricky situation. In the traditional view of experience implying skills, makes it likely that hiring managers look for people with experience, and are risk-averse believing that hiring someone with experience is safer than hiring someone without it. The reasonable belief is that if one has done this a job multiple times before, then one has developed the skills to do the work effectively (and also the skills of what not to do).  Someone with years of experience is able to get sense of a difficult situation in no time, while the others can take months to figure it out. This is the power of experience….experience is the difference between theory and practice.

The other side of this argument is that “number of years” are not a good metric of “skills” required to do a job with quality….especially a job rooted in the future. In today’s world, while experience is one dimension, what is more important is the ability to use different methodologies, skills, newer technologies, and creative thinking to solve problems, inside, outside, and sometimes inside-and-outside the box. It’s not being a subject matter expert by trial and error or by doing it all; it’s by learning a new subject quickly to come up with useful recommendations. In today’s world learning curves are continuing to shorten, further everyone gains “experience” at a different rate, depending on responsibilities, motivation, etc. Gen Y is coming up with new ideas and approaches that people with experience might not consider. Where they lack “relevant” experience they are able to more than make up with their energy, ambition, and desire to learn.

Organizational balancing act

Successful organizations have to do a delicate balancing act as they go through this inevitable demographic transformation. On one side organizations have to recognize the significant contributions (both past and future) of the Gen X (aged between 30 and 47 years), and baby boomers (aged between 48 and 65 years) in the workforce…….neither can organizations ignore the aspirations of this important part of the workforce. On the other, the Gen Y has to be leveraged to the fullest. It is not a question of either/or…but and/and.

To get the maximum out of the Gen Y, in my mind there are three key things that organizations have to focus on, and in no particular order they are:
a)    Training, knowledge/experience capture, and dissemination
b)    Organization flexibility
c)    Devolving responsibility and ownership

On the training front, it is important to recognize expertise, and organizations have to focus on building expertise quickly.  Expertise is both technical and domain centric.  Companies have to focus on developing capabilities to capture “good” or “relevant” experiences (a smaller sub-set of the total experience) and get these disseminated through the workforce. 

This is easier said than done as to do so, organizations have to become a lot more process-centric and have to improve knowledge management capabilities.  In my past experiences :-), a product called Hyperknowledge had an interesting way to capture organizational expertise.

On the organizational flexibility front, organizations will need to move beyond hiring using the traditional job advertisement, which today is a laundry list of the desire to match daunting internal experiences….i.e. educational experience, “a” years of managerial experience, “b” years of specific technical experience, “c” years in project role experience, “d” in industry experience, “e” in business application experience, and on and on and on. Organizations will have to have confidence in their processes and training capabilities so as to hire Gen Y’s with the right skills, and ensure they get and gain the right experience.  Also, organizations have to develop the right “mix” of resources to get a job done successfully.  The right mix is not only essential for smooth execution, but has implications on the cost of execution.

Finally, devolution of ownership to Gen Y will be essential for organization success as one gains a lot more expertise as a leader than as a follower. What I’m trying to say is more responsibility equals to more expertise, quickly.  Gen Y will need to be measured on outcomes and not necessarily on the path to get to the outcome. In my experience, the early opportunities I got to lead, absolutely helped build expertise faster.

The world is changing fast….down-turn or no down-turn, techniques to fully exploit the capability of the workforce of the future will be critical to an organizations ability to deliver value. 

As always, I am very interested in knowing your view on this topic….what do you think?

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