The Hidden Deficit in Your Career

January 18, 2011

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By Peter Weddle

Historically, working Americans have relied on two kinds of knowledge in the workplace: occupational and experiential.  We went to school and attended training programs to keep ourselves up-to-date in our field of work, and we learned the practical lessons of how things actually got done and done well through our day-to-day interactions on-the-job.

While both of those kinds of knowledge were deemed important, they were not given equal weight, either in our own minds or, in truth, in those of our employers.  Book learning was obviously an important foundation, but the superstructure of experience was the gold standard of an employee’s value.  Indeed, until recently, if there was a choice between two candidates, one with the latest knowledge and no experience and one with slightly (or even significantly) dated expertise and a lot of experience, most organizations would have opted for the person with the longer track record.

Moreover, if you’ve been in the workforce for more than five years, you probably came to rely on that approach to worker valuation.  Sure, you tended to your occupational knowledge, but you did so episodically and at a relatively leisurely pace.  It was an effective strategy for managing your career because occupational knowledge expanded and was refined at a similarly slow rate.  As a result, your mastery in your field had a long half-life.

Today, it doesn’t.

The Shorter Half-Life of Occupational Knowledge

The half-life of occupational knowledge has shrunk dramatically in the last decade.  The pace of new knowledge creation and old knowledge refinement has now accelerated in every career field.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re a salesperson who must stay abreast of a constantly changing array of new products or a systems analyst who must be conversant in a continuously expanding universe of new software, half of your expertise is now obsolete every eighteen months.

What does that mean for you and your career?  To put it bluntly, you are going to have to acknowledge one change and make another.

First, you must now accept that the relative importance of expertise and experience has shifted.  Employers now view your expertise as more critical to their success than your experience.  They believe they need state-of-the-art knowledge in order to compete in the global marketplace.  Experience is still obviously helpful and remains an important foundation for high performance.  But, it is the superstructure of your knowledge in the latest concepts, techniques, technologies and products and services that will enable you to make a meaningful contribution on-the-job.

Second, you can no longer afford to coast in your occupational development.  There is no recess when it comes to staying current in your field.  You must now be in school all of the time, when you’re employed and even when you’re not.  In fact, if you’re in transition today, the strongest resume is the one that indicates that you’re continuing your knowledge acquisition even as you look for a job.  That entry indicates to an employer both that you recognize the importance of keeping your expertise current and that you take personal responsibility for doing so.

These two shifts have introduced a simple but powerful new key to success in the modern American workplace.  Whether you’re in transition and looking for a new job or currently employed and seeking to keep that job, there’s only one way to achieve your goal.  You have to make sure that the knowledge you bring to work each day is rich with the latest thinking and the newest ideas in your field.

Peter Weddle is a recruiter, HR consultant and business CEO turned author and commentator. Weddle is the author of over two dozen employment-related books, including the recently released blockbuster The Career Activist Republic and Work Strong, Your Personal Career Fitness System, one of the most innovative career success books in print.  Both are available at Amazon.com.

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