Are skills always individual?

Recently I did a rant on Lots of reasons for finding out people’s skills – but “skills capture” is the wrong language. Now here’s another bone to chew on. The word people in “finding out people’s skills” is plural. We tend to think in a hyper-individualised society that skills are capabilities of individuals. I don’t think that is always the case. (It was a research paper Weaving Skill Ropes that drew my attention to this)

In team sports, the individuals are skilled, but it is only when they play well together that the team gets good results. Is the skill somehow contained in the team as well as the individuals?

I find something like that in my salsa band (pictured) – there is no single one of us who can play salsa – the rhythms and riffs interlock and no one part conveys the sense of salsa. It is a group skill to hear how that works and keep it “tight” as we play together. The skill is not just cognitive for the individuals, it has a social component that involves working together.

If this insight is valid it has some interesting implications for skills in the workplace

  • In our desire for flexible resourcing, we tend to think about individuals, but what about groups of people who perform well together. Should we make more effort to keep those mini-teams together
  • The social aspects of learning are even more important than I had thought. It is not just that individuals learn in a social context, but that their skill is really only strong in a social context. So should we prioritise groups who work together to learn together?
  • Subject groups (the BT name for communities of practice) are really important as the repository of skill. The skill is not stewarded for the business in an individual or a bunch of individuals, but in a community which is more than any one of them could be. Should we pay more attention to helping Subject groups to flourish?

Now to bring this theory to life, what it needs is some more examples from working in organisations where the skill resides in the team, or in the social aspects of getting things done, not just in the mind of the individual. Suggestions in the comments please

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