Sharpening the saw

I joined Digital Equipment Corporation at the peak of its success. As the company’s fortunes declined, employees got nervous about their future. Since I had outside experience, I was asked for résumé critiques by some highly proficient technical writers who faced the prospect of going elsewhere after spending ten, fifteen, twenty years—or even longer!—in one place. These were smart people who functioned as sharp tools in their environment. I saw a résumé from a colleague who listed (on ten pages, if memory serves) twenty years’ worth of output of Digital manuals. What admirable productivity! Give that writer a Digital achievement award. But transferring that highly developed skill set outside of its native environment was not easy, because such a finely honed tool can appear useless for any other task. I later heard that kind of work history discounted as “one year of experience, repeated twenty times.”

One of Stephen Covey’s seven habits of successful people is “sharpening the saw.” He meant self renewal, but I’m thinking here of self development. Our field is changing as fast as any other. (Wth new fields to document and new tools to do it with, maybe ours is changing faster!) We all know that our best strategy is to stay in “continuous learning” mode. As this article from the Boston Globe puts it:

“This notion of being proactive, and figuring out where your field is heading and what you might need to learn, is really important for long-term success,” says Larry Israelite, manager of human resource development at Liberty Mutual, the Boston insurance giant.

It’s important to keep this in mind, because it’s easy to fall into the trap of keeping on keepin’ on. There’s a mounting body of research evidence suggesting that, the more experience one has, the less one is likely to engage in any formal learning at all. A 2009 study of Canadian IT professionals found that 51 percent spent no money on training in 2008 and another five percent only spent $500. In the scheme of things that’s not much. I know it’s cruel to point it out, but even doing an excellent job, year after year, isn’t enough to protect you.

Who’s going to look out for you? Even enlighened employers that take professional development seriously say it’s your responsibility to manage your own career. As Israelite says in the article, “the employee really has the obligation and the responsibility to look at where she’s trying to go—in the same company or another one—and doing what’s necessary to prepare.”

It is because of the steadily changing nature of professional work that professional certifications are typically not granted permanently but for only a limited period. A certification with renewal requirements is much stronger and more credible than one that is not. Three years, plus ongoing professional membership, is standard.

For those fortunate enough to be employed, both certification and recertification can tap into corporate training and development budgets. For those between jobs, the cost becomes an investment in one’s own career, but in a job search there’s another advantage to a certification that must be both earned and kept. Previously, it was difficult for an employer to determine whether or not a practitioner was current with best practices. A maintained credential provides this information better than a list of courses taken.

Which is cause and which is effect? Do certified professionals keep their certification because they continue to develop themselves, or do they continue to develop themselves to stay certified? In the end it doesn’t matter. As Israelite says, “People who take personal accountability for improving themselves are more successful on just about any dimension than people who wait to be told by their manager, ‘Hey, you really should learn this.’” If the need to stay certified serves as an incentive to keep sharpening the saw, I think that’s just fine!

Published by Steven Jong

I am a lifelong technical communicator, a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), a former STC board member, and chair of the first STC Certification Commission. I occasionally blog about these and other topics.

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