The uses of skill names

Skills, like computer programs, govern performances that are com­ plex relative to the actions that are required to initiate them. The manifold coordinated details of the performance seem to take care of themselves once the decision to exercise the skill is made and a few initial steps are taken. This differential in complexity between initia­ tion and the full performance is mirrored in the use of language to describe and discuss skills. It is, as we have emphasized, difficult or impossible to use language to characterize the “inner workings” of a skill, but words serve quite well in thinking and communicating about skills considered as units of purposive behavior. We make ef­ fective use of skill names and skill-related verbs in planning and problem solving, and rarely reflect on the extreme complexi ty of the actual behaviors that these symbols represent.

If we are planning a trip from New Haven to Boston, and going by car is one of the transportation options, we consider that option with very little regard to the “overwhelming” magnitude of the information-processing task involved in driving the car- ordinarily, it suffices to assure ourselves that at least one of the potential occu­ pants of the vehicle knows how to drive. If we are remodeling the kitchen, we may plan to hire the services of a plumber, a carpenter, and an electrician, and we care that we hire ” good ones” and do not pay too much-but we do not concern ourselves with the detailed structure of these complex skills and their relationship to the particu­ lar problems posed by the kitchen plan. If we are bothered by a vi­ sion problem it is helpful to know the meaning of “ophthalmologist” and “optician,” but the relevant meaning is the “what for” meaning, not the “how to” meaning that is known to the possessors of these skills.

Of course, planning and problem solving are skills in their own right. There are detailed behavioral programs for planning specific sorts of activities, and more loosely defined problem-solving skills of broader applicability. In the exercise of these cognitive skills, an im­ portant role is played by language and, in particular, by the names of other skills that may or may not be possessed by the planner or problem solver. This observation leads to an important distinction regarding the scope of the capabilities possessed by an individual- namely, the distinction between “knowing how to do X” and ” knowing how to get X accomplished.” G iven an appropriate envi­ ronment, and the resources and skills required for implementation of plans in that environment, an effective planner can get a lot of things accomplished that he does not personally know how to do. One does not need to be an ophthalmologist or an optician to get new glasses prescribed and made. However, even in this simple case the problem of getting the desired result accomplished may be quite difficult for a planner who does not have command of the relevant vocabulary of skill names. 5 In cases where the required vocabulary is larger and more esoteric, the planning difficulties associated with the lack of that vocabulary are correspondingly greater.

Thus, the planning vocabulary of an individual is an important determinant of the range of things that the individual can get accom-plished. That there exist people in the economy who could perform a task that one cannot perform oneself is of little help unless one knows how to locate such a person for the purpose of arranging a transac­ tion, and such a quest is difficult to pursue effectively unless one knows or can discover the name of the skill or capability one is seeking. But vocabulary is clearly only one variable among many that affect the ability to get things accomplished, and the vocabulary vari­ able interacts subtly with the others. We have noted that all skills are context-dependent in various ways, but the effectiveness of planning and implementation skills is particularly dependent upon detailed features of the social context.

For one thing, the “right” vocabulary is itself socially defined . The word that it is really important to know may be the heading under which the required capability is listed in the Yellow Pages. Or the key feature of the social context may be an organization of which the individual is a member, and the vocabulary the individual needs to command may be the specialized planning vocabulary of that organi­ zation. In a great many situations- such as getting a car repaired

-the effectiveness of planning and implementation by an individual who will not ultimately do the thing himself is considerably en­ hanced by possession of some level of the required skill, as a com­ plement to knowledge of the skill name. The extent to which this is the case depends on social arrangements affecting such things as the degree of standardization of services performed, the costs of veri­ fying performance, certification arrangements, interpersonal trust, and the definition and enforcement of contractual obligations. If the service performed is of a standardized type, if the requisite quality of performance is sharply defined and easily verified, and if the per­ former is clearly and effectively liable for the consequences of defi­ ciencies in his performance, a simple market purchase of the service is likely to be a satisfactory means of implementation for a planner who knows only the name of the service he needs to buy. Where these conditions are absent and the planner is not protected by certi­ fication and trust from the possible incompetence or opportunism of the performer, he may have to concern himself with the details of the performance in an effort to assure that he gets what he needs at a rea­ sonable price. To be useful, such concern needs to be guided by nor­ mative standards for the details -by knowledge of how the thing should be done.

Obviously, it would be nice if social arrangements involving stan­ dardization, certification, and so forth could be further elaborated so as to sharpen and assure the meanings of skill names. This would promote efficiency through the division of labor, by relieving planner-purchasers of the need to concern themselves with the de-tails of the skilled performances they obtain from others. Unfortu· nately, skills really are complex, and there are intrinsic limits to the extent to which effective planning can be conducted by manipulating a limited vocabulary of symbols representing these complex entities, limits that are particularly stringent when the planning relates to novel circumstances. We now turn to an examination of the sources of these intrinsic limits .

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 *