You’re in charge of the England football team, it’s a must win game. You need to pick a striker; you can choose either Harry Kane or Professor of Football Studies from Football University. Who are you going to pick? One has world-class skill, the other has world-class knowledge. One is likely to be significantly better at execution, the other better at understanding and reimagining the sport. Now your job is to build a new ‘Future of Football’ academy, who will you pick to lead it?
Knowledge is important, it can transform a sector, a business, or a unit by looking at how and why things are done and imagine new ways of working. Without knowledge, we struggle to understand the landscape, the history, the why. We gain knowledge from education and research but mostly from others. To increase knowledge, we need to study, learn from others, and review both our depth of knowledge and range of knowledge.
A significant gap in knowledge can hamper any attempt at skill application. For example, if we need to write an employee handbook but we have no knowledge of employment law, no amount of writing skills will close the gap.
Skills allow us to execute to a higher standard. Skills accumulate over time and by repetition and practice. In his outstanding book, Peak, Anders Ericsson discusses the types of practice to improve skills: naive practice (mindless repetition), purposeful practice (clearly defined with specific goals) and deliberate practice (pushes you out of your comfort zone, uses feedback and often involves a coach). The key to expert skill development is deliberate practice.
Three steps to optimising the skills v knowledge balance:
- Consider the task. What is the level of complexity required? Is it well established and fit for purpose? If so, the priority may well be to increase the skill level to execute the task better, quicker, more accurately etc. Footballers spend a lot of their time on the practice field for a reason – improve the skill.
- Consider the individuals. When building high performing teams, consider the value of both skills and knowledge and consider how you can ensure you have the right balance in the right areas. The bigger the change or complexity of operation, the more knowledge will be required. If someone is world-class at a similar skill, don’t assume they can instantly transfer that level to a new task without time and space to work on their knowledge – an outstanding individual contributor will not automatically become a great line manager.
- Blend the two. Don’t box yourself in. We all have the capacity to excel at either knowledge or skills (or both) in tasks, but being conscious of where the gaps are will allow leaders and managers to blend them and identify the correct training or development requirements.