What Do We Mean By ‘Skills’ Anyway?

Following on from my article about knowledge economy skills, it may be useful to drill a bit deeper into what we mean by skills, and also how they are acquired. Back when I was authoring the UK National Skills Strategy for Interactive Media, I did a lot of research, consultation and thinking on this, which I’ll try to distill here.

I think, at least in the context of the digital industry and knowledge economy, we can broadly define three types of skills – Enduring, Tansient and Transferable.

Transferable, Enduring and Transient Skills

  • Enduring skills are the foundation skills on which everything else is based. They don’t particularly change over time. They’re things like design principles, programming theory, scientific concepts – the sorts of things that once learned, stay with you for life.
  • Transient skills are those that change often and need regularly updating. Things like specific software packages, programming languages, tools, technologies, techniques and latest best practice.
  • Transferable skills are the surrounding ‘soft’ skills – work, life and business skills, the sorts of things that might not fit neatly into a classroom subject, or even be particularly tangible, but which are essential for a long-term successful career. And for life in general, really.

Of course the lines between these groups are not necessarily straight or solid. There can be overlap or fuzziness around the edges, and there will always be specific examples that cut across or don’t quite fit. But as a generalization, I think it’s a useful model.

Cutting across these three types, we can also say that skills have two applications – general and specific.

Two Applications of Skills - General and Specific

  • General skills can apply across multiple (or all) industries and sectors, and will mostly be the Enduring and Transferable skill types – for example business skills are fairly universal; design and coding principles will be relevant in lots of different contexts. There may be sector-specific nuances of course, and even some Transient skills may be general, applicable across most industries – for example, use of Office software is a transient skill (different packages come and go, software gets updated and users need to refresh their skills from time to time), but it has general applicability.
  • Specific skills are those that apply to only one, or just a handful, of industries – such as industry-specific software, tools, machinery, regulations etc. These will mostly be Transient skills, but may include some Enduring skills, for example where there are specific principles, theories or concepts that are unique to one industry.

This model is also useful in considering where skills come from – or perhaps more importantly, where they should come from – and when looking at gaps or shortcomings in education and training provision.

One of the criticisms often leveled at education by industry is that it is failing to produce well-rounded work-ready people, with the right mix of skills, attitudes and experience. This, it could be argued, is because our education system is focused in the wrong place.

There are broadly three sources of skills acquisition: formal education (school, further and higher education); training, self-study and experimentation (research and development); and experience. These can be mapped to the skills types we looked at above:

Where Skills Come From

The diagram illustrates the perception, widely reported by industry during my research work for the National Skills Strategy, that:

  • Further and Higher Education focuses on Enduring and Transient skills. The issue here is that all too often the Enduring skills are not covered in sufficient breadth and depth, while there is too much focus on Transient skills that will be out of date by the time the course is finished. There are all sorts of reasons for this, from the quality of intake and the need to spend time ‘catching up’ on skills that should have been learned at school; to the commercial imperative, league tables and the desire to create employable graduates; combined with employers taking a short-term view and demanding recruits who can ‘hit the ground running’. The result all too often is time spent learning specific software and tools rather than underlying principles.
  • Training, Self-Study and R&D is the main route for acquiring the Transferrable business, work and life skills, and for updating existing – or acquiring new – Transient skills. This costs time and money of course – some of which is to be expected in the course of normal business, but is an issue if resources are having to be spent in order to acquire Transferrable skills that really should already be in place.
  • Much of the Transferrable and Enduring skill set is left to be acquired through (often bitter) experience. How many businesses have failed because bad decisions were made because the founders didn’t know any better? How many junior developers have written poor-quality code because they didn’t know about underlying principles or best practice? How many designers failed to sell their ideas because they lacked good presentation skills? I could go on, but you get the idea.

Now, certainly experience often is the way we improve our skills, and often we do learn by trial and error, and often we make mistakes and learn from them. But if the gap between what industry needs – and what individual practitioners need for long-term success – and what formal education is providing is really that big, surely there are changes we can make, rather than just leave it all to experience and on-the-job / in-work training?

I think there are. It seems to me that what we need is a shift, a rotation – I deliberately drew the above diagrams as circles because of what I want to show next.

What if we moved the whole thing round, so that Further and Higher Education focuses primarily on Enduring and Transferable skills; Transferrable skills are then enhanced through experience, as are some Transient skills (you get better at using a tool simply through the practice of using it); meanwhlle the often-limited resources for training, self-study and research and development can be focused on Transient skills (e.g. to meet a specific imminent project need) and on enhancing the underlying Enduring skills. Ideally, the Transient skills would be the realm of self-study and research, while training course budgets could be used for the Enduring skills.

Where Skills Should Come From

To make this really work though, we need to start earlier. We need secondary school – perhaps even primary school? – to better prepare students so that when they enter Further and Higher Education, they are truly ready to start learning the Enduring and Transferrable skills right away.

How we do all that is, of course, up for grabs. I’ve said in other posts that I think putting Product Design at the heart of the school curriculum, and embedding Design Thinking throughout, may be a useful approach. The Large Scale Enquiry Week at Garden International School is also a model that I think could be developed – it was impressive, and rightfully won an award for innovative learning.

About Jonathan Hirsch

I've been working in the interactive media industry since 1995. I'm a problem-solver with a multi-disciplinary skill set. I work on a freelance / contract basis. I help clients create great digital products.

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