This I Believe

Eric - edinburg, Texas
Entered on December 20, 2007

How much experience do you have is a question that is often posed to job applicants, and lack of experience is the main reason why many applicants do not get an interview. It also prevents entrepreneurs from getting access to capital to start new businesses and current employees from being promoted.

Experience is a poor indicator of what has been learned in the past and what can be done in the future. Driving is a good example of how experience often fails to lead to learning and expertise. Many people who have been driving for years, and therefore have ample experience, are still poor drivers. The weak relationship between experience and expertise is evident in many organizations as well. Anything that you do admirably today, you at one point did not know how to do, so experience was not a valid predictor of your future success. Therefore, for the same reason, it is unreasonable to use experience indiscriminately as a selection criterion.

While prior experience is important for some jobs, such as nuclear power plant technicians, or medical doctors, it is not required for many of today’s jobs. Most organizations depend on new ideas and innovation for survival. Since innovation is by nature something new, prior experience in often irrelevant. Some of the most creative and successful entrepreneurs had no experience at all in their fields when they started their firms. For example, Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream was started by two friends who knew nothing about the ice cream business. Despite their lack of experience, they built an American icon with unique ice cream products such as Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey. Perhaps the secret of their creativity was their lack of experience based barriers to limit what they could do. The Ben and Jerry’s case illustrates the notion that work experience is a poor measure for future creative performance. Personality characteristics and behavior patterns are far more reliable predictors.

Why does the over reliance on work experience persist? Dependence on work experience is like a crutch on which employers and financers have come to rely. It is measurable, easy to use and it has long been used as a selection tool. Since most organizations do not measure personality characteristics, skill levels or assess behavior patterns, using experience is a convenient, although often inappropriate surrogate for more valid criteria. Additionally, using experience is often arbitrary (i.e., minimum 5 years of management experience) and helps decision makers lose cite of far more reliable predictors of success. It ignores that fact that some people learn little, even if they have a lot of experience, and other people can learn much in a short period of time. When one uses experience as a selection criterion, one assumes that everyone learns at the same rate, which is obviously false. The result is poor hiring, promotion and investment and decisions and missed opportunities for individuals, organizations and society.