Sunday, November 9, 2014

Myth of the "Relevant Experience"


During my daily twitter stream reading, I came across this snippet from Stowe Boyd:

"A formal hierarchy overweights experience and underweights new thinking, and in doing so perpetuates the past. It misallocates power, since promotions often go to the most politically astute rather than to the most prescient or productive."~ By Gary Hamel, Bureaucracy Must Die (The bold highlights are mine.)

The snippet succinctly puts forth the challenges of being a hierarchical organization set to operate in a stable world but hurled into the new world of complexity, change and disruptive tech. The impact of formal hierarchy on organizational culture can be far-reaching. From over-weighing of experience to "this-is-the-way-things-are-done-here" syndrome, it has an effect on all areas of organizational function. As long as experience makes one resilient, quick to adapt and learn, a good leader and empathetic manager, and increases one's ability to connect the dots and see the pattern, the experience is relevant. When experience makes one rigid, unable to accept change, arrogant about the efficacy of what worked in the past and hence concluding that the same will continue to work today, and deafens one to new thinking, that experience lacks relevance and becomes a hindrance to the growth of the organization. 

The unfortunate truth is that most organizations cling to past experience and glory almost as an armor against new thinking. The unwillingness to meet change, accept the new world of work, and be adaptive can actually tip an organization into a downward spiral. Kodak and Borders are glaring examples. Organizational agility is also reflective of the mindset of the organization’s leadership. Whether they pay homage to experience and “relevant experience” or embrace new thinking and keep adapting and growing shape the culture and impacts how things get done.

This is not to imply that experience doesn’t have value. It does. However, what matters is how organizations view experience. When “relevant experience” implying the number of years an individual has worked in the same field and the knowledge thus accumulated comes to be viewed as sacrosanct, this is a danger signal. This kind of thinking is the enemy of innovation and creativity. In today's rapidly changing context, the value of "relevant experience" has a very short shelf-life. Often, with roles that have evolved/emerged in the last 5 years, like those of Enterprise Community Manager, Social Media Marketing, Digital Officer, etc., asking for relevant experience makes no sense. And with roles that we know nothing about except that these will emerge over the next few years, the criteria needs to be very different. Standardized JDs with well-defined roles pose a hindrance to an organization’s ability to adapt and thrive.

IMHO, everything that I have done so far is relevant. Hence, I find it very difficult to answer this question. The question demands that we fragment our experiences into buckets and silos when the reality is that each experience ties together to form a story. In an era where we are moving out of "jobs for life" into a "life of different and varied jobs", every bit of experience gathered along the way counts--nothing is irrelevant. Thus, the myth of relevant experience needs to be closely scrutinized. It is often a roadblock to organizational and individual growth--all the more so if tied to a fixed mindset.  

As Harold Jarche points out in his post on An Update on Jobs, "We need to skill-up jobs for emergent and novel practices which requires a completely different mindset about work." In an earlier post, Harold had written: "I think that the construct of the job, with its defined skills, effort, responsibilities and working conditions, is a key limiting organizational factor for the creative economy..." I completely agree! Once jobs were slotted and packaged to enable the Industrial Era to function smoothly. The JDs defined the role, training provided the required skill sets, and then one was put to work. Over the years, experience added efficiency and the ability to deal with emergencies. Experienced, dependable, obedient workers got promoted. Dissenters were usually perceived as nuisance and sacked. 

Today, obedience and dependability don't go far. As Gary Hamel pointed out in 2009, the Knowledge Economy requires Creativity, Initiative and Passion. It also requires learning agility, a willingness to try and fail, and a growth mindset. Every walk of life--from healthcare to education, from the print media to learning design--is facing technological disruption. Well established organizations like Kodak and Borders went out of business in spite of their years of experience. The disruptive power of technology will have far-reaching effects that we have not even started to conceive. And this will only multiply exponentially. Organizations will have to transform the way they operate -- in all aspects. This includes recruitment, talent management, workplace design, employee policies, articulation of values, and much more. 

Going back to the snippet I started the post with, formal hierarchy doesn’t only impede free flow of knowledge and sharing but it also makes an organization rigid, unable to adapt and siloed. Well-crafted job descriptions belonged to an era of stable, predictable work with exact and known outcomes, and a belief in skill accumulation. There is no relevant experience any more. Only experience. And the more diverse and varied they are, the better!


The post Ten Skills for the Future Workforce is a good summary of some of the core skills organizations should look out for in their prospective employees and seek to grow in the existing workforce—at all levels. 

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