Friday, June 3, 2011

On the Value of Experience

Experience is one of those buzzwords that comes up anytime someone decides to examine someone else's credentials. But what is it really? What makes "5 years of related experience" a testable and reliable metric for making sure someone is qualified for a position?

The short answer is easy: it isn't a good metric at all, but it is a really easy (if stupid, which I will mention discuss in a moment) to weed out candidates that are unlikely to fit. The only real problem with this system is that it assumes being near something is what makes experience. This is fundamentally erroneous since it implies that just by being in Spain I will become Spanish through some sort of cultural osmosis. To a degree this will occur, but how many of us have friends who have returned from abroad decked out in the local dress and speaking a smattering of the language, but unable to tell you much more than that about the local color?

Most of us, I am sure.

This is also true in the work place. Many times people complain about managers who know less about whats going in in the department as a whole than the people on the floor. This is to a certain extent true since if the manager knew every single little detail he would be a micromanaging tyrant, but we often run up against management that has no idea what is going on and the people on the floor are expected to fill them in before the big meeting. The problem becomes that if both of us leave that company and apply at Big Bob's Mayo Warehouse to the same management position, he will get it due to his "5 years of experience managing department X"

This superficial view of experience is downright dangerous at times when it comes to electing our leadership. Just look at the 2008 election when people were crowing from the rooftops about Obama only spending a couple of years as a junior Senator and community organizer before becoming President. Yet these same people paraded out for us Sarah Palin, a woman who they championed because of her "experience as governor of Alaska". She was the boss who had no idea what was happening on the floor, but our culture's obsession with superficial experience attempted to put her one heartbeat away from running our country in one of its most dire situations in the last few decades.

All in all wanting experience is a good thing and is something we should look for, but the catch is that we have to know what we are looking for. It isn't enough to just have someone who was in a position but didn't actually do anything or learn anything. The perfect example of this is the renaming of positions so that they sound more important that they really are. "Specialist" is the new "Assistant", "Technician" is the new entry level. With all of this flash and showmanship flying around, it can be difficult to find out what is real amidst all of the sound and fanfare.

But really it is this simple: When someone puts their best foot forward, make sure it is really there and that it is attached to a leg for them to stand on.

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