When selecting new staff, sub-contractors or even consultants and coaches, many managers value ‘experience over qualifications’. The belief that experience outweighs qualifications is understandable. It reflects a deep doubt and stereotyping about academics who are considered unable to apply their knowledge to ‘real’ problems and about school and college leavers that have few ‘real-world’ skills.
The rationale that experience trumps qualifications stands until one looks at what’s typically needed in business. The reality is that, on its own, experience is not enough.
Let’s consider a real example.
Some years ago my house needed some work to replace the woodwork around the roof. I invited three companies to come round to discuss the work and provide quotes.
The first firm said that its workers would use ladders against the walls. The thought of workers hanging from ladders, manhandling roof tiles and 7 metre lengths of heavy timber appalled me. But this firm was cheap.
The second firm proposed using two access towers. That was an improvement over the ladders but given uneven ground around the house, I could see this wasting a lot of time in constant tower re-positioning.
The third looked at the house and said immediately that they would require the whole house to be scaffolded. A scaffold would allow the job to be completed swiftly and safely. Painting and TV aerial wiring could also be done using the scaffold. This firm risked losing the work by being most expensive. But they got the contract.
Each bidder had an approach. Each appraised the work to be done and proposed a method of doing it.
They key thing that differentiated the bidders was their approach. The approach proposed by each drove everything – ease of working, quality and cost. It’s the same in all areas of business.
And the approach was driven in turn by the nature of my house, with its uneven flowerbeds and pathways. The approach was driven by the experience of the quoting manager. There’s no doubting that the firm that won, with its scaffolded approach, could have used ladders or towers, but the manager determined that scaffolding was essential for my scenario. In determining how to do this work, the setting (or context) was everything.
So where did the manager get that ability to determine the approach necessary?
Someone who had only ever worked on simple jobs where ladders proved adequate would offer a ladders-based method. They would assume that all houses were the same and that ladder access was adequate. If it proved otherwise, they’d likely show their ignorance of other methods and decline to bid. Experience of similar jobs would drive similar approaches.
Experience therefore conditions thinking. If that’s what’s been done before, and the setting is the same, the approach will be the stock approach trotted out again and again. In a new context, such practice will likely loose the business.
The example of the house woodwork shows that, for the manager quoting the job, the knowledge and skills needed to succeed are extensive.
How then might the manager of the wining firm have learned his trade?
If we value experience alone, the best we can hope for is that he or she may have joined a firm that worked across all possible approaches. Over a long career the manager may have experience of many successful applications. That may have given him or her a large repertoire of access possibilities for his workers.
The above example is very simple – there are only three approaches. Many business scenarios are complex and hence most firms have complex approaches to their work.
Imagine now that the client is asking whether or not a firm should use Twitter as a marketing vehicle. Though many would retort ‘of course’, that would be over-simplifying what is a very complex question. Or, to make it even more complex, imagine that a marketer is asked to determine which marketing vehicles to use to achieve a particular business outcome; to determine the marketing approaches. There are innumerable combinations of approaches. What worked in one company and setting may waste time and money in another. Success may come from some combination of tools never used before.
So how does a manager proceed in this new scenario?
In such a complex scenario, the manager must analyse the setting or context, investigate options and appraise possible solutions. He or she must develop an approach to the problem. In very complex contexts, the manager might employ feedback, sensing what’s working and what’s not and change approach mid-flow for success. Such thinking – analysis, investigation and appraisal – must be learned.
Let’s return to the simpler example of the roof. In absence of extensive experience, experience of every house in the country, experience typically beyond that available to most folk, the manager must learn ways to approach the problem.
First, the manager may simply have worked under a very experienced mentor – someone with a suitable repertoire of approaches and the knowledge of how to apply them to any job. That mentor may have taught the manager how to approach such problems.
Second, they may have read extensively and had numerous presentations from product specialists from vendors, expert in access and in working at height. That would at least help them decide which approach to propose for my roof.
Or third, they may have gone to college and studied the whole business of doing work, covering safety, access, quality and costing. Such courses often include opportunity to experience each approach and to build ideas about how to approach jobs.
In all cases, the manager must have studied the subject – in this case, access to enable work at height. He or she must have studied the concepts of access. And he or she must have studied how to analyse, investigate and appraise. The manager must have acquired enough skill and knowledge and must have learned to apply their generalised knowledge to specific cases.
How the skills and knowledge are acquired is less important than the fact that the bidding manager is competent in choosing a suitable approach to the problem in hand.
Problems encountered by managers are complex. And it’s fundamentally impossible for any manager to have experience that covers all future problems in all future contexts.
Managers need to learn how to analyse, investigate and appraise. When new approaches are needed, they also need to know how to conduct context-relevant research beyond just ‘Googling it’.
So what’s needed is a mix of generalised knowledge (what some might call ‘theory’) and skills in applying that generalised knowledge to specific cases. What’s needed is theory and practice – college qualifications and on-the-job experience.
Experience alone is not enough.