Skills as programs

A variety of terms have been used in the literature of social science to denote a smooth sequence of behavior that functions, in some senseI as an effective unit. “Skill’l is obviously one such; there is, in partic­ ular, a substantial psychological literature relating to skills and skill learning. The terms “plan/’ Uscript,” “habit,1I “routine,1I and “pro­ gram” have also been used to name either the same concept or a very closely related one. But there are obvious differences in connotation among these terms, and exploration of these various connotations can be informative .

To think of skills as programs is to evoke the image of a computer program. Clearly, the development of the modern electronic com­ puter and its associated software has had an important and widely diffused influence on theoretical thinking about the phenomena that concern us here.} Computer programs that simulate complex, pat­ terned behaviors have been developed over a wide range of human and organizational activity. These efforts have shown, above ale that the logical processes of a digital computer can mimic very “skillful” and “intelligenfl behaviors, at least in the sense of providing a suffi­ cient account of numerous observable aspects of such behavior. Here, however, we will not review specific examples of this sort of research, but will consider only the broad parallels between skills and (computer) programs.

The following features of computer programs are analogous to, and instructive regarding, corresponding features of human skills. First, a program functions as a unitl and its execution is ordinarily a highly complex performance relative to the actions required to initi­ ate the performance. Second, although loops and “go to” statements and conditional branching statements complicate the picture, the basic organization scheme of a program is serial . There is a begin­ ning and an end (or at least there is supposed to be an end) . Also, re­ sumption following an unplanned interruption of program execution is often problematic, and it is easier to start over from the beginning than it is to complete the partial performance. Third, considering that it is performed by an automaton, it is clear that the execution of a computer program is literally “automatic.” Finally, the speed and accuracy with which an appropriately programmed computer accom­ plishes its task are often considered impressive. One standard of “impressiveness” may be human performance on the same task, but perhaps a more useful standard from the point of view of the infor­ mativeness of the analogy would be the performance that could be achieved using the computer but not the program- that is, by directly commanding each individual step.

The points about skills implied in the above statements about pro­grams are largely self-evident, but some b rief elaboration may be useful. As regards “functioning as a unit,” it may be noted that, for both programs and skills, there are recognizable “units” at various levels of organization. Larger units are organized complexes of smaller ones, in which the latter may nevertheless retain some indi­ viduality. Thus, for even a moderately proficient touch- typist, the typing of words like “the,” “and,” “here,” “in,” and “as” is execu­ table at a stroke, while “Sincerely yours” is both a unit and a two­ unit complex. Probably very few typists have fingers for which “anti­ disestablishmentarianism” is a familiar rhythm; nevertheless, a skilled typist will break that word into familiar units and thereby ex­ ecute it much more quickly than a novice can. Typing skill also serves to illustrate the point about serial organization- essentially, that the order in which component units of a skill are executed is a significant fact about the structure of the skill itself. A typist who can rattle off “through” without a thought is likely to have to slow down and pay attention to type “hguox:ht,” or even “ughthro. “

Skilled human performance is automatic in the sense that most of the details are executed without conscious volition. Indeed, a wel­ come precursor of success in an effort to acquire a new skill is the di­ minishing need to attend to the details. And it is a familiar fact that attempting to attend to the details often has a disruptive effect: in many competitive situations in athletics, the arts, and other spheres, success depends importantly on the ability of the performer to “stay loose” and ” not clutch’l-that is, to resist the pressures that might cause destructive attention to intrude into the details of t he per-formance. It is not uncommon for a performer who is particularly noted for this ability to be compared, approvingly, to a computer or other machine.

Although “impressiveness” is obviously a matter of degree and relative to expectation, only the most phlegmatic can escape being impressed, at some point, by a skillful performance. Indeed, “world class” performances in a variety of intellectual, artistic, and athletic pursuits often fall in the range of the “awesome” rather than that of the merely impressive. In such cases, of course, one is led to specu­ late about the role that the basic mental and physical equipment of the performer plays in high skill . For this reason, it is perhaps more relevant to our concerns to consider the reaction of the novice to the moderately skilled tennis player, skier, pianist, or solver of differen­ tial equations. At least for an observer unjaded by exposure to super­ stars, performances made possible by a few years of lessons and reg­ ular practice are often highly impressive-and depressing, because illustrative of a goal that seems unattainable. This gap between a skilled performer and a novice with the same “basic equipment” is the analogue of the difference between having the computer and also the right program for the task, and having the computer only.

Source: Nelson Richard R., Winter Sidney G. (1985), An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change, Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *