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


Lots of reasons for finding out people’s skills – but “skills capture” is the wrong language

Recently someone asked me how we could use Sharepoint for skills capture. I can answer that of course, but my instinctive thought was “that’s the wrong question”. So let me rant for a bit, before I talk sense again.

What’s wrong with skills capture? – the language

Skills “capture” has always struck me as an odd phrase. I’m thinking prisoners of war, or highwaymen seizing something that doesn’t belong to them. Is skills capture something management does to us? Grabs from us forcefully?

Another common phrase is “skills claim”. Somehow it reminds me of an insurance claim, or claiming benefits. When it is a “claim” it is a statement that isn’t trusted until it has been thoroughly checked.

Of course I am exaggerating my interpretation, but the point is that language matters. How we frame the task implies a whole mindset, and projects that mindset on to everyone.

What happens if we reword the task? Use some different wording. I chose the phrase “Finding out people’s skills”, and simply doing that opened my mind to some more possibilities which I will talk about later on. If the real business challenge is “Finding out people’s skills” rather than “Skills capture”, then there are other things that can be done – “skills capture” is just one way of “finding out people’s skills”. Likewise “Skills claim” is just one way of sharing relevant and useful information about skills. Changing the wording might free us to think a bit more broadly about how to meet the business challenge. It might be interesting to try substituting some other phrases and see what they reveal – please suggest your favourite phrases in the comments.

What’s wrong with skills capture? – some methods I’ve seen

I’ve had my skills captured several times at BT. Each time it has involved me devoting time on my own to working through a massive spreadsheet of carefully constructed and very lengthy, precise definitions in tiny text, and either picking a number or trying to write an essay about each one to prove how good I am. That was cumbersome and time-consuming. The definitions were actually pretty well-written, but definitions are dry things – this was not like the engagingly-written self-assessment quizzes that pop up on Facebook from time to time.

The skills list did not include lots of skills that I prized in myself. (Technology moves on, so the list will always be slightly out-of-date.) Was the business implying that those skills were not important?

Then what I had written was evaluated by a manager or sometimes a panel of experts who quite often said I needed more evidence. The not-so-subtle emotional message of that pushback was “you’re not quite good enough”. I was mildly outraged to feel myself judged – and so it evoked my threat response, defensiveness. Although it was probably a pure information-gathering exercise, I worried that I would suffer loss of status, or be rated as less than my peers.

And then… nothing happened. As far as I could tell, the result after that huge spreadsheet was “overall you are a level 5 something or other” and I can’t even remember what the something was or what the levels meant. I don’t think the information I provided about my skills and the stories of my experience was ever used – it never got transferred from the spreadsheet – so it can’t have given any long-term value. I suspect someone did some statistics, but what a huge effort to get some numbers! In fact, when people have been interested in my skills, they have either worked it out from my blog, my public profile in BT or by asking for my CV.

So what if…

  • Maybe it doesn’t need to be secret – why not have skills out in the open inside the organisation, searchable, usable
  • Maybe it doesn’t have to be in one particular format – less structured formats like a CV or the About Me statement on My Profile could be just as useful
  • Maybe we don’t need information for every skill at the same depth or rigour – what if some were just the name of the skill, others were formally accredited, some in the form of war stories, some had in-depth technical surveys to complete.
  • Maybe the skills definitions don’t all have to follow the same format.
  • Maybe we don’t need to validate all skill claims for the information to be valuable (and that would save a lot of time and heartache)
  • Maybe individuals don’t have to fill in forms – maybe we could get a clever system to guess our skills from patterns of communication

I know, I know, there are counter-examples and counter-arguments for each of these, but maybe we could put the balance point in a different place.

Why might we need to know people’s skills?

Continue reading