Is Relevant Work Experience Overrated?

A radical change in our hiring and nurturing strategy is required to foster more anti-fragile and relevant organizations, by design

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What is unique to us humans, after all? Since the age of the steam engine, humans have been increasingly marginalized by machines: first on physical strength and then on intellectual prowess. The world’s best chess players, pilots, firefighters and even surgeons are no match to what a bunch of connected computers can perform, and many would feel paralyzed without such machines by their side. If the deal is on productivity, humans have long lost it to machines. Alas, productivity is not the most important driver of growth and change, and that’s where humans remain relevant. It’s our ability to connect disparate ideas into new patterns, commonly known as creativity, which gives us an edge over other species, including those made of silicon.

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We are the agents of creation and not the engines of productivity. But does this realization reflect in our hiring strategies? Sadly, no. We still hire for predictability and not serendipity, we look at consistency and not variance, and, this way, we inadvertently still value productivity over creativity, often to our own undoing. In this piece, I advocate how a radical change in our hiring and nurturing strategy is required to foster more anti-fragile and relevant organizations, by design.

There are three mental traps that most managers, and not just the HR professionals, face.  Firstly, they continue to value relevant experience; secondly, they intuitively equate experience with expertise; and thirdly, they overvalue expertise in the increasingly wicked world. The remedy is to actively seek irrelevant work experience, foster a culture that tolerates and even encourages deviants, and lastly, foster polymaths as against generalists or even specialists.

Our misplaced affinity towards ‘relevant’ work experience

How many times have you come across a job description that doesn’t emphasize on relevant work experience? You wouldn’t. Because seeking relevant work experience offers a misplaced sense of assurance—that things won’t change radically in the future and the experience of the past would remain relevant and even useful. The rapidity of technology has shown us that this maxim is nothing but false.

Why do we seek relevant work experience? It’s primarily to cut down on the learning time, or the time-to-productivity of the incoming talent. This person won’t waste the firm’s precious resources to learn, and instead would become productive from day one, or as they say ‘hit the ground running’. While expecting no deviations or errors on the job, we are also cutting down on useful mistakes or serendipities and anomalies that could lay the seed for creative ways of problem-solving or outright radical innovations. Think of it: if an experienced employee faces a unique problem in a new context how likely would she apply a new solution versus resorting to a time-tested one? The whole premise of relevant work experience is that she must have seen this problem and used a solution before and must be adept at replicating the magic. Except that in this case neither the employee nor your organization learns anything new, let alone create something better. It’s more of the same, something that machines are better than us humans in doing. By limiting the downside while hiring somebody with relevant work experience, you are also severely stunting the upside and this could be hazardous, especially when situations are becoming dissimilar.

Mistaking experience for expertise

Does more of something makes you better at it? It depends. The so-called “10,000 hours rule” which suggests that to be an expert on something one needs to spend at least 10,000 hours, or roughly five years, performing the task, has a few core assumptions. Firstly, the rules of the game must be known and relatively stable, as in chess or most competitive sports. Secondly, there must be a feedback mechanism to calibrate one’s efforts, which is true with playing musical instruments, especially under supervision. And thirdly, the work environment is kind and not wicked, which is to say that the rapidity and uncertainty of change are low. This leaves us with very few real-life skills, beyond sports or arts, that benefit from the 10,000-hours prediction. A large portion of what life has to offer, especially on the commerce front, doesn’t neatly fit into the said conditions. And yet we intuitively extend work experience to work expertise.

An assumption that a person who has seen it and been there would be best suited to take on ‘any’ challenge could be fatal. The person, through years of working on a defined set of problems, operating in a benign environment and with self-selection of what problems to work on may end up developing context-specific expertise. This very narrow expertise can be worst than being useless in a radically different situation. Think of how awful cricket test match players are in a Twenty20 match and vice-versa. Or the plight of theatre artists on the big screen. Their years of experience in one domain may offer them expertise, but not versatility, and the business world is nothing but dynamic.

To be truly an expert one must have experienced and dealt with a wide range of situations, each offering new learning. Just doing the same task over and over again for 20 years doesn’t really make one expert, because all it takes is one unique situation, and the best laid out approaches may start to look shaky. It’s not to say that expertise makes one infallible, but just that accumulation of experience doesn’t necessarily amount to expertise, and that needs to be constantly reminded to organizational gatekeepers (read the HR function).

Overvaluing expertise in the wicked world

So far we have learned that relevant work experience isn’t relevant anymore and yet we derive a false sense of comfort while hiring such people, for they offer instant productivity gains but at the cost of long-term creativity losses. We also understood that (relevant) experience doesn’t necessarily amount to expertise. Instead, the experience of managing a wide range of situations and learning therefrom is far more valuable and could be called expertise, as it offers greater versatility to the talent. However, even expertise may have severe limitations, especially if the playing environment is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

David Epstein, in his book Range, offers a compelling case of why relying on expertise under uncertain environments, which he calls a ‘wicked world’, may be problematic. “Highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident — a dangerous combination,” says Epstein. “The problem is that we often expect the hyperspecialist, because of their expertise in a narrow area, to magically be able to extend their skill to wicked problems. The result can be disastrous. ”

Organizations are growingly facing problems that are complex and multifaceted, and complex problems call for complex ways of thinking. One needs to develop a systems view, looking at various moving parts in unison, and learn the interdependencies so that one could strive for a global optima instead of local excellence. That’s where a range of exposure and experience is valued over ‘relevant experience’, for who knows that what’s irrelevant in one context may be highly relevant in another. But by foreclosing seemingly unrelated knowledge an organization might inadvertently foreclose mutual learning.

So what is the antidote? The idea is to actively seek talent which is different such that the organizational vitality could be improved and so could be its survivability. Think of mutation, the same force that helps the more versatile species survive the cruel selection process of nature. The more diverse an organizational workforce is the greater are the chances for the firm to survive the vagaries of market uncertainty and economic cycles. The human resources strategy and people practices must be designed in such a way that the irrelevant talent is not only attracted but also given an aircover by fostering a culture of failure tolerance and encouraging deviants, as long as they work under the broad guide rail of organizational goals and integrity.  Also is required to foster polymaths, those who exhibit a deep understanding of a few domains coupled with a broad perspective making them adept at solving cross-functional problems.

We need both experience and expertise, but also “deliberate amateurs” who can connect seamlessly across domains to generate new ideas. As Frans Johansson, the author of The Medici Effect, notes, “Too much expertise… can fortify the associative barriers between fields. At the same time, expertise is clearly needed in order to develop new ideas to begin with.” So the next time you seek a candidate try relaxing the condition of relevant work experience because you have no idea what would be relevant in the future. To future-proof your organization go for variation, at the cost of confirmation, and creativity at the cost of apparent productivity loss.