The fleeting nature of skill

In lieu of the constant recurring ‘discussion’ concerning the skills within the British economy…we thought we would write a quick blog.

Even a cursory glance over the prevalent literature reveals skill as an amorphous term, defined and utilised with great fluidity, from business leaders through to policy makers. Such are the range of definitions that “conceptions of what comprises skills have shifted away from hard, technical expertise towards softer interpersonal capabilities, many of which could be conceived of as personal characteristics or attributes” (Keep & Mayhew, 1999: 5). The ever increasing parameters of what constitutes skill makes it increasingly difficult for the observer to distinguish between what is actually beneficial from a skills perspective and what is simply an unobtainable organisational wish-list. (Grugulis & Stoyanova, 2011).

From a research perspective, the shifting terms on how we define skills inhibits studies aiming to qualify appropriate measures of the term; along with preventing consistent comparative assessment over time and across studies. Indeed “much of the research offers one-off, snapshot views and lacks a longitudinal element from which trends and causality might be more readily inferred” (Keep et al. 2002: 3). Depictions of a moment in time are just that, pertinent to their and then, the obvious flaw being that what works in one instance may well not be appropriate in another; not to mention for different organisations. How can we know that the skills required today will be the same required in two, three, four years’ time? Unfortunately we can’t with whole certainty, which goes to highlight the challenges faced by researchers trying to understand the impact of skills on performance via longitudinal studies. Skills fluctuate with business requirements; as such, studies that attempt to link skills with performance run the inherent risk of being ‘out of date’ before they are even completed. What we can do is ensure that skills are closely linked to the strategy and direction of the business, and also be willing to accept that they will change and mould with future outcomes, by doing so, this returns the greatest distinction of control over what skills will be required now and in the future by Organisations. Job analysis and competency modelling techniques can assist firms in understanding the type of skills prevalent within the Organisation, with the latter (if done correctly) facilitating what future focusses or stretch skills will be required to move forward successfully.

Keep, E., and Mayhew, K. (1999) ‘The Assessment: Knowledge, Skills and Competitiveness’, Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 15 (1): 1-15.

Grugulis, I and Stoyanova, D. (2011) ‘Skills and Performance’ British Journal of Management Studies 43(3): 515-536.

Keep, E. Mayhew, K., and Corney M. (2002) ‘Review of the evidence on the rate of return to employers of investment in training and employer training measures’, SKOPE Research Paper No 34, Coventry: University of Warwick.