Monday, January 19, 2009

Unconscious Compentence 3: Conscious Competence

We've covered two stages in the "Conscious Competence" learning model.

The first is Unconscious Incompetence.

The second is Conscious Incompetence.

Now we move on to Conscious Competence.

As you move out of the Conscious Incompetence stage, you educate yourself in a new skill. You start by learning how much there is to learn, and then learning what needs to be learned.

As you move to the level of Conscious Competence, you gain a level of knowledge and experience so that you can say that you are able to do a certain thing well or very well. You are aware of your skill level. You are consciously competent.

Of course this stage has different levels. At first, you learn a few basics. Then you learn to do something reasonably well, and without assistance.

As you know, a new skill can be lost if not practiced.

For example, let's say you're learning to program a specific router. You learn to define objects and services. You learn to assign VLANs. You make it all happen without breaking anything. You learn to backup and restore a configuration.

Fine. Then you don't get to look at a router for another month. Some things "stuck" and some didn't. Most of it comes back pretty quickly, but you definitely have to think about it.

As a result, you may forever be in the stage where you CAN program this router, and do so quite competently. But you need to think about it each time.

This is Conscious Competence.

At this stage, you could show someone else how to perform the task. But they may have questions you can't answer. You "know" the skill, but you don't know it inside and out!

In the discussion of Conscious Incompetence, I mentioned that we have to choose the few things we become competent with.

But, over time, we become more and more competent with many different skills.

Most of our "skill" based knowledge is somewhere in the area of conscious competence. This is the big bucket that contains all the things we do in our jobs, in our hobbies, and at home.

We can rate ourselves "competent" in a vast number of areas.

Depending on how frequently, and how extensively we use a skill, we will settle into a level of competence for each skill. Here's an example from the world of software.

I probably use a hundred different software programs. Some I use a lot (Outlook, Word, Excel, Internet Explorer, Windows Explorer, Windows desktop). Within each of these programs, I use specific functions "all the time." Opening files, navigating within files, and so forth. My competence with these programs and skills is very high competence.

But for other programs (e.g., DreamWeaver, Paintshop, or even my anti-virus program), I don't use them much. I can pretty much do whatever I need to do. But I'm average competence with these programs.

With still other programs, or skills within the programs above, I am decidedly low competence. I use Word all the time, but I almost never create tables of contents, indexes, or mail merge. Some of these things are barely inside the area of Conscious Competence at all. I can do them. But just barely, and I have to really think about it.

The key factor with Conscious Competence is the conscious part. I know my relative level of competence. And I need to think about the tasks while I execute them. At the high end, I could teach people these skills. At the low end, you shouldn't be paying me to do this.

Someone asked me awhile back if I could write a program to do something. My response was quick and clear: You'd be foolish to pay me to do VB programming. Yeah, I can figure it out. But you should pay someone who spends their time programming, not figuring it out.

And that brings us back to our profession.

We all have different levels of Conscious Competence. We each have a broad number of skills, and within each skill we have a specific level of competence.

As human beings, we dance around each other trying to figure out how much skill a job takes, and which skills the other has.

When I hire a technician, I try very hard to get a sense of what each CAN and cannot do. Good technicians are honest about what they can do, and eager to learn what they (currently) can't do.

It's also important to consider related skills. The higher your level of competence in related skills, the faster you'll be able to learn related skills.

You've probably noticed this yourself. If you have a high level of competence with IP routing, configuring routers, and configuring firewalls, then you have nothing to fear when you get to a managed switch for the first time. You might be in the Conscious Incompetent stage regarding programming a switch, but you'll move to some level of conscious competence very quickly.

Again, without constant exposure to the new skill, the skill level will slide down.

It's a good idea to take inventory of the skills you use along with your level of competence. In the stage called Conscious Competence we discussed Low, Medium, and High skill levels. Consider where you are with each of these, and how skills are grouped together with related skill sets.

There is one more level of skill. It's in the next stage, and it's called Unconscious Competence.

We'll talk about that next.


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