Of the 3 Types of Skills, One Is Quickly Becoming Most Important

March 8, 2017

Transferrable skills have now become more important than domain expertise, thanks to a rapidly changing world.

Research has found there are three types of skills in the world: knowledges, transferable skills and self-management skills.

Not too long ago, knowledges – what you know – were the most important skills in the workplace. With knowledge limited, people would spend years mastering a specific expertise and then build their career around that.

But that’s quickly changing, according to LinkedIn Learning Instructor Gary Bolles. In a rapidly changing world where information is a commodity, transferable skills – aka what you can do – are quickly becoming most important, Bolles said in his LinkedIn Learning course on hiring and developing your future workforce.

For organizations, this has a dramatic affect on hiring and the importance of developing your workforce.

The three types of skills

While there’s no shortage of skills in the world, they all fall into three main categories, according to researcher Sidney Fine. They are:

  • Knowledges

Knowledges are, as the name implies, knowledge of a specific field. So, for example knowing the type of brake pad needed in a 2002 Honda Civic or the amount of salt to add to pork roast or how to build a pivot table in Excel are all types of knowledges.

  • Self-management skills

Self-management skills are skills on how you do your work. Time management is a classic self-management skill, for example. Self-management skills have always been important, are still important and will remain important, regardless of market conditions.

  • Transferable skills

Transferable skills are boiled down to what you can do and can apply to almost any task you take on. For example, your learning ability is a transferrable skill. Leadership skills are a transferable skill. Being strategic is a transferrable skill.

Why transferable skills have surpassed knowledges

Not that long ago, the world didn’t change as fast, and information was hard to come by (think pre-Internet how difficult it would be to learn a new tactic in Excel, for example, whereas today you’d just Google it). Therefore, organizations needed people who were highly trained on a specific topic, and a person could build a career around that.

Today, that’s changed. With so much information so easily accessible, and with that information always changing, expertise on a specific topic matters less. What matters more is how quickly a person can learn and use new information in the best way possible (two transferable skills).

An example that illustrates the point

Take the hypothetical example of a software engineer. Years ago, the most in-demand software engineer would be someone who spent years and years mastering a single programming language, say Java. Pre-internet, the only way to learn Java would be books and school, and most employers would want someone who has experience mastering that one language.

Today, new programming languages are coming out constantly and learning how to code is easier than ever. Employers would still want a software engineer who is capable of coding, but they’d care less about their expertise of a particular language.

Instead, the focus would be on more transferable skills: does this engineer understand the business needs and how their code fits in with that? Can this person come up with creative solutions? How quickly can this person learn new tools and coding techniques?

As information becomes more available to more people, it’s less about expertise in a specific area. Instead, it becomes more about a person’s transferable skills, i.e. how quickly they can learn and if they have a full picture of the work they do.

What this means to organizations, in regards to hiring and developing talent

This change has ramifications on how organizations need to approach recruiting and developing talent, Bolles said in his course. Specifically, who you hire becomes less about their expertise and more about their core capabilities; and you need to commit to developing people to an ever-changing business landscape.

Let’s start with who you hire. Not that long ago, you’d want people with clear knowledges. So, in your job description you’d ask for say 10 years experience in a certain discipline, as that generally meant the person was highly knowledgeable in that area.

Today, it’s completely different. Rather than look for 15 years experience in a specific field, what’s more critical is their transferable skills. Has this person adapted to change in their field? Are they simply doers, or do they have a strategic view of their work?

Additionally, it’s more important than ever to develop your workforce, to instill this always-learning mindset. Here’s a playbook on how to make that happen, but the key is emphasizing the importance of learning and by making learning always available.

Bottom line, with few exceptions the days of a highly specialized worker is coming to an end. What matters more now is finding an adaptable worker, who can adjust to new market conditions and knows the most important tasks to prioritize.

And the organizations that recruit and develop those curious minds will be the most successful moving forward.

*Image by Tambako, Flickr

Want to build a culture of learning at your company? Learn from experts in our Workplace Learning Report, where we surveyed 500 L&D leaders to find out what they are focused on in 2017.