Skills Versus Theory

small biz toolboxOne of the things my colleagues and I discuss often is the balance between teaching “skills” versus “theory” courses.

Skills courses are those where students learn a specific, tangible thing – a “how to” – that can be applied immediately:  How to use a software program, how to write promotional copy, how to conduct a survey, how to shoot video, etc.   Theory courses are those where learning takes place, but the application of that knowledge is less specific, more situational, and requires critical and strategic thinking.  Examples are ethics courses, branding courses, sales courses, and so on.

Both skills and theory are important, and both are taught here in our program at Ole Miss.  But the question becomes, what is the right mix?  When students graduate, what should be in their toolbox?

Chances are, students will land their first job after graduation because of a skill.  They’ll go to work for a marketing department, a PR department, an ad agency, a newspaper, a magazine, or a TV station or some other business.  There they will write, report, edit, take pictures, create websites, handle social media, conduct surveys, do a newsletter or whatever.

A recent graduate who now works at an ad agency in Atlanta told me he stood out from other new hires because he knew how to use Adobe Creative Suite 6 (a design software program).

But while a skill gets students their first job, it’s the ability to think critically, be strategic and understand the big picture that will lead to their advancement.

The trick is to make sure students are prepared for an immediate job, yet have knowledge that will last a lifetime.

And skills become obsolete.  If we focus too much on making sure students know how to create mobile apps today, how is that helpful in five years (or less) when the technology changes?

But yet it is.  In college, I took a Fortran class.  Fortran is a computer programming language that isn’t used much anymore, at least in my field.  I was good at it, but how important has that technical skill been in my career?  Well, I never once used it – haven’t done a thing with Fortran since I graduated.  However, surprisingly, the foundational knowledge it gave me about computer programming has been very helpful throughout the years.  I have worked with many companies to build marketing databases, and my ability to understand the process that the techies use – even though I couldn’t do it myself – has been invaluable.

The point is, the debate over skills versus theory isn’t all or nothing.  I’m not very musically inclined, but my hunch is someone who learns how to play the piano has an easier time learning another instrument because they already know how to read a music note.  In that way, specific skills do impart lasting knowledge.

There’s no magic answer as to what’s the right balance, at least in the marketing communication and journalism fields.   It’s more a matter of monitoring what’s going on in the marketplace, staying in touch with employers, and tweaking curriculum as needed.

1 Comment

Filed under Integrated Marketing Communications, Strategy

One response to “Skills Versus Theory

  1. Scott, from the perspective of someone who’s spend the last 15 years employing roughly 40 communications professionals (including a few Ole Miss grads) please know your comments are dead on. We may hire for a specific skill (ability to plan media, ability to write AP style etc.) but we RETAIN based on the ability to think critically and act empathetically. An above average critical thinking quotient is table stakes in our business. If you’re not overflowing with original thought, you might consider another career track (though you can fake it for a while as we’ve all sat through countless meetings where an empty suit crystalized his reputation by confidently rewording an original thought introduced by a coworker five minutes earlier). We’re paid for intellectual property not man hours. If I’m merely selling man hours I’m in a no margin business or worse my assignment can be outsourced to lower cost labor with technical skills. Yes, we’ve hired lots of folks with pedigree expecting a high contribution after a short trip up the learning curve. Unfortunately all too often very smart people don’t understand another basic truth to our business: WE PLAY A TEAM SPORT. Whether interacting with a Client or coworker, if you can think, do, WILL do and importantly do so with a collegial esprit de corps folks will want you on their team. I suspect your alum was hired not because she understood the Adobe suite but because she had enough experience with it to appreciate others had deeper chops. I also suspect she came across as appropriately civil – one of the things I love about Ole Miss grads. If I don’t miss my guess, the employer saw value in her Adobe experience hoping she’d be able to empathize with her coworker when guiding the design process to an end that met the firm’s own aesthetic and most importantly delighted a paying customer. Keep up the good work. Your grads seem to have their act together.

    Jackson Houk
    Managing Partner

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