Don’t Be a Dinosaur: How to Avoid Skill Obsolescence

I was nervous when I was called into the meeting. My manager messaged me, saying he needed my help immediately. He was in a closed meeting with the top level managers at our company.

They all greeted me politely, with a few sheepish glances. After some small talk, someone finally told me why they called me in.

“We need to move this column two places to the right on Excel, but none of us know how.”

I was stunned. Here I was, in a meeting with our company’s biggest decision makers… and they needed me to copy and paste a column.

Microsoft Excel is not a new technology. It’s been around since 1995. There are people joining the workforce who are younger than that.

Yet, like most business tools, it’s been improved and changed over the years. If your organization is going to survive, it has to move with these changes. And so do you.

Even if you consider yourself tech savvy now, how will you do in ten or twenty years? Will you learn the new holographic spreadsheets on your Google glasses, or will you be stuck in the copy-paste era?

It’s not only tech skills that can become obsolete. In fact, any skill or ability you have is subject to a phenomenon called “skill obsolescence.” Luckily, there are ways to fight back.

What is skill obsolescence?

The European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training offers this useful definition of skill obsolescence:

The degree to which professionals lack the up-to-date knowledge or skills necessary to maintain effective performance in their current or future work roles’ (Kaufman, 1974).

If you aren’t skillful and knowledgeable in the most up-to-date aspects of a skill, your effectiveness, and thus your organization, will suffer. There are specific kinds of skill obsolescence we need to watch out for, if we’re going to perform at our best.

Physical Skill Obsolescence

Physical skill obsolescence means “real world or mental skills and abilities that deteriorate to atrophy or wear and tear.” This means you’re no longer that great at something you used to be good at.

This can include…

  • Forgetting how to work a certain software
  • Struggling to solve math problems you were able to solve before (this one becomes especially obvious when you’re helping a child with their school work!)
  • Losing physical ability, like lifting a certain weight or running at a high speed

We lose physical skills when we don’t use them regularly.

We’re more likely to lose skills we learned more recently. For instance, you probably won’t forget how to ride a bike… but you might forget how to drive a stick shift, even if it’s been years since you’ve done either.

Economic Skill Obsolescence

Economic skill obsolescence means “skills previously utilized in a job are no longer required or have diminished in importance.”

This can include…

  • Being moved to a new department or role that doesn’t use certain skills that you’ve mastered
  • Knowing software nobody uses anymore (a moment of silence for Microsoft Access)
  • Innovation removing human effort from a process, so the skill is no longer needed

Economic skill obsolescence is more out of our control, but being prepared for our skills to become obsolete is definitely within our control.

By learning new things and gaining new skills, you can stay ahead of economic skill obsolescence. When one skill goes obsolete, you’ll be the master of a whole slew of others.

Perspectivistic Obsolescence

Perspectivisitic obsolescence is having outdated views and beliefs on work and the work environment. Though this is not related to a specific task, it can several slow down a company’s growth.

This can include…

  •   assdasd
  • Being unaccepting of diversity in the workplace
  • Not listening to other people’s ideas

This kind of obsolescence can be a major cause of all the other kinds. The first step to keeping your skills up-to-date is making sure you’re learning new things and refreshing your ideas.

Organisational Forgetting

Organisational forgetting is not specific to individuals. It’s the loss of skills in a firm due to worker turnover.

This can include…

  • The director of accounting retires… but no one is trained to take their place
  • Your company’s social media manager quits, and nobody else has any clue how to work twitter
  • Your one IT expert goes on sick leave

As you can see, organisational forgetting can happen any time someone leaves your company, either for good or for a temporary leave of some kind. If no one else on your team has the skills your company needs, you’re a victim of organisational forgetting.

There’s a silver lining here, though… This type of skill obsolescence proves that as entrepreneurs, we don’t need to be good at everything! So long as someone in your organization (or preferably, multiple someones) has the skills your company needs to thrive, it’s fine…

…with the added caveat that you need to listen to those skilled people when they make contributions, otherwise their skills won’t help.

How long does it take to lose a skill?

According to Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., from the Department of Psychology at Carleton University, “The length of time it takes to lose a skill is proportional to the time it took you to learn the skill.”

Dr. Pychyl gives “cramming” for an exam as an example. Students can study intensely for a test, do well on the exam, but then a few days later, they’re unable to remember what they learned or demonstrate any skills from it.

So if a skill is new and you haven’t spent much time practicing it, you’re more likely to use it.

The time to lose a skill also depends on the skill. There are some abilities that, once we learn them, they never leave. We can see this in patients suffering from degenerative brain diseases. They may forget names and places, but still retain certain abilities, because the skill is so deeply ingrained.

However, these deep-seated skills are often only earned after a lifetime of use.

What does this tell us about skill obsolescence? You lose new skills faster, but if you can practice until a new skill is almost reflexively ingrained, you’re less likely to use it over time, even if you use it less regularly.

Why do skills fade?

Dr. Pychyl tells us, “We don’t really lose these skills… they “rust” a little.” That’s because of how our brains encode information.

New learning is stored in our brain by new neural connections. The more these neural connections fire, the deeper and more extensive they are in our brains. If you stop using those connections, and using that specific skill, the connection will fade over time.

This is the difference between surface learning and “deep” learning. Surface learning, like cramming before an exam, is easily erased.

How to keep your skills

What are the best ways to avoid skill obsolescence? Again, it varies by skill, but based on our skill categories above, we can recommend a few strategies.

Having a continual improvement mindset will help you avoid obsolescence as well. We talk about the four stages of competence and lifelong learning in this article.

To avoid obsolescence, make a regular practice of the following:

  • Take classes to refresh old skills, in addition to gaining new ones
  • Read articles on new findings in the business world, technology, and psychology
  • Focus on getting really good at a wide variety of skills, rather than aiming for perfection at one or two things
  • Don’t forget to update your “soft” skills: things like communication and empathy are just as important to your success, and they’ll always be necessary in the workplace

With an attitude of lifelong learning, you’ll stay ahead of the curve. Plus, it’s fun to master new skills, anyway.

The most important skill to keep…

The number one most important skill you need to work on?

Taking feedback and input from others. If you lose this skill, the other forms of skill obsolescence will soon descend on your company.

If someone suggests that you or your company are lacking an important ability, listen to them. Then either delegate or learn the skill yourself (as time permits). Feedback can also help you decide what skills are most important to focus on. After all, you can’t be all things at all times to all people!

Remember: you don’t need to know everything… but your organization as a whole should know most things. And once you put good people in place, either as permanent employees, coaches, or freelance help, you need to take their input to heart.

Otherwise, soon your company will be as extinct as a dinosaur.

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Harry Schechter


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