Get a 1000-foot view of your skills
Topic: Professional Development
I made it through November. It’s not my favourite month, but this year was different. Maybe the sun keeps me smiling.
In the following weeks, I’ll be moving the newsletter from substack to ghost to gain more control over the software and bundle my online activities in one place. This shouldn’t impact you in any way; it will just look (slightly) different.
Today I’ll be talking about a new way to look at your skills. It will be a practice-oriented post, like an exercise you can do.
Lately, I’ve been spending quite a lot of time learning and thinking about learning. I’m doing a sailing course (in Spanish), learning Spanish, improving my swimming, and deepening my SQL skills. I thought about looking into DAO’s, but that will have to wait.
I created a learning portfolio to help me develop a solid learning plan. This has helped me plan what I want to learn on a micro-level. However, the learning portfolio was designed to do a deep dive into one skill area. What I was missing was a way to surface all my skills and see the connections between them.
There are times when it makes sense to have a 1000-foot view of your skills as it helps to discover overlapping skills or (un)healthy behavioural patterns. In this post, I will explain how you can better understand your expertise areas by creating your skill-network.
What is a skill-network?
A skill-network is similar to a mindmap. It is a way to visualize how your knowledge and skills are related and organized. This network will highlight knowledge and skills that are commonly used for the same tasks. Skills that are used for similar activities form a cluster. A skill cluster is a group of skills that help you do a job. For example, the task of writing requires these skills:
spelling and grammar
empathy for the reader
big-picture view (for editing)
Some of these skills I also need for data analysis. These are the skills I need when I analyze data:
big-picture view (for answering the right analytical question)
discovering the problem (for dealing with bugs)
You can see that some of the skills overlap. If I get better at planning, my writing and analysis will improve, and that means that the skills of structure, planning, and big-picture view form a cluster. If I don’t enjoy writing or data analysis anymore, I should look for another career where this skill cluster is valued.
A convenient feature of the skill-network is that it is based on your daily tasks and activities. I purposefully selected this as the backbone, as the skill network should serve as the basis for deciding what skills I should further develop. By basing the network on what I do, I ensure that what I will learn will be relevant. Your daily experiences are a great source of learning if you reflect on what (didn’t) work as expected and look for solutions.
When should you be creating your skill network
Of course, now is a great time (as you have all the resources in this post). But to be more specific, there are a couple of moments when having this network is extremely helpful.
When you are stuck (in a career that you don’t enjoy)
If you don’t like your career path, it’s time for a change. But that change can be daunting. The skill-network can make it less scary by decoupling the skills to a specific domain, showing you “influencer skills” (your top skills) and “bridging skills”, skills that transfer easily from one task to another. Those bridging skills are excellent segways into new careers.
Before you start a new course or formal education
When you enrol in a course, you will learn new skills. The skill-network will help you track what you knew before starting the course and how your skills develop over time. Of course, this means updating your skill-network.
When you want to grow
Similar to the previous point, when you want to grow and improve yourself the skill-network will help you highlight skills that you can focus on. This can mean improving on an "influencer skill" or learning something new.
I used a spreadsheet to prepare the skill-network and Kumu to visualize it. Kumu is a free tool for stakeholder mapping, system analysis, and, of course, network analysis.
Creating the network is done in three stages: First, build the table that links tasks to skills. Second, visualize your skills, and third analyze the resulting map. The last step is the hardest one.
You can also do step 1 and step 2 directly in Kumu using the network builder or the map feature. However, if you are the type of person who quickly gets distracted when seeing an ugly visual, I suggest you don’t use the network builder. You might end up spending too much time making it look nice instead of building the map.
If you have never used Kumu before, don’t use it to create your skills table. It will add a bit of complexity and distract you from the exercise. But don’t worry, it isn’t a complex platform to use.
You can also use sticky.studio to create the skill map directly. Sticky.studio is a simple whiteboarding and mindmap tool that integrates with Kumu.
Step 1: List your tasks/experiences/activities in a table
You can create the table using any spreadsheet software you like. In the first column, list your tasks, experiences, or activities. It isn’t essential to focus on tasks, experiences or activities, just something that helps you start thinking about what you do during the day.
If my two tasks are writing an article and making a video, I add them in the first column. This header of this column has to be From.
Step 2: List all the skills that belong to a task/experience/activity
In the second column, you will add the skills you need for the specific task/activity/experience. In this way, you are connecting a task to a skill.
The order is not essential. But pay attention to the spelling and naming of a skill. Kumu will think that “big-picture view (for editing)” and “big-picture view (for answering the right analytical question)” are two different skills. That’s why in my skill map, I call the skill “big picture view”.
To upload the table to Kumu, you need to call your first column “From” and your second column “To”. These labels need to be in your first row.
Making it more complex: You can add more information to your skill-network. For example, you can describe a task or skill or specify how important a skill is for a task. But I suggest that you don’t do it on the first try. Start with a simple network and then add more information.
Step 3: Create a project on Kumu and upload the table
You can look at the tutorial to learn how to create a project and upload the table. Make sure that your table is formatted correctly.
You can go ahead and add some colours or shapes to your skill-network.
Now, that’s the easy part done. The hard part is looking for patterns and deciding what you should be doing next.
Step 4: A simple analysis
As the skill network is a graph, you can use graph analysis to get some data-driven insights. It is easy to get carried away and run a ton of analysis (at least for me). But, keep in mind what your end goal is.
A word of warning: The results are only as good as your data. Create the network and discuss it with someone before analyzing it.
To make the next section more concrete, I will be using my situation as an example. I’ll be asking myself several questions to guide me in my analysis and not lose focus.
I have worked for ten years in academia on mainly quantitative research projects. I’ve created several dashboards using different tools. I have presented at several conferences, published articles, and taught online and offline. In the last five years, I have spent more and more time outside of academia. I have created my website, given workshops outside of academia, worked on data analysis projects for private clients, and founded a company. My goal is to increase my technical skills as I want to create a journal app that measures the sentiments of journal entries.
Question 1: What are my most vital skills?
I call my most vital skills influencer skills. These are skills that I use in a wide variety of tasks. These can be technical or soft skills. To discover them, I calculate the degree of each skill. As the analysis does not distinguish between tasks and abilities, I will ignore the tasks when looking at the results.
Warning: The assumption here is that you are strong in a skill that you are often using. Of course, this is not 100% true. But by having to do something repeatedly, you have at least the chance to become an expert in it.
My top skills are empathy, math, and system thinking. This will help me achieve my goal.
Question 2: What are my bridge skills?
Bridge skills are skills that help me switch from one task to another. For example, storytelling is a bridge skill I need for writing good articles, presenting, and reporting. Often, soft skills are bridge skills. Depending on the structure and size of your skill-network your influencer and bridge skills will be similar.
My bridge skills are: Empathy, math, and working with databases. The last one in this list (working with database) is interesting. I hadn’t had a chance to dig deep into it in academia, but I need it for my future project. Knowing that it is a bridge skill gives me the confidence to build the journaling app as I don’t have to start from scratch.
When looking at my influencer and bridging skills, I’m surprised not to see programming. As I know that I added it to the map, I’m manually searching for it to see if
I forgot to add a task.
With what other skills programming is connected to
Looking at the tasks that I linked to programming, I’m reminded that programming wasn’t a focus in my last job. That is why it wasn’t prominent.
Question 3: What is my skill profile?
Finally, I’m looking at skill clusters. I know from the previous two analyses that I have the basis for building an app, but how strong is this basis? Ideally, I’ll see the required skills clustered together in one group. That would mean that in the past, I have used them before on some interrelated tasks.
Hint: Looking for skill clusters is helpful if you are planning your career. As a career is a collection of tasks, the skill cluster helps you define your career.
Running the cluster analysis is again done by Kumu. Just click the button and done. The figure below shows the skills in my largest skill cluster.
Do more with your skills-network
Turn it into a portfolio or resume: You can add descriptions to every skill and task. For example, you can add your projects to a task. In this way, your skill network becomes a portfolio. You can describe how good you are at a skill, why you want to learn it, who can help you get better at it, link resources or certificates to a task or skill.
I set up my skill network focusing on tasks that I have done in the past. But, you can add tasks that you want to do in the future. How you frame it is your decision.
In the beginning, I mentioned my learning portfolio. I can add the individual skills pages to my learning portfolio or embed the skill-network in my learning portfolio. In that way, I have a seamless integration between the two tools. You can buy the template for the learning portfolio for € 5 (free for paid subscribers).
Can I do this exercise with my team?
I wrote this article to help individuals achieve clarity about their strengths and pinpoint areas for growth. However, your team will also benefit from running this exercise. Creating this map for your team helps you clarify if you have all the necessary expertise for your current tasks and future plans.
If you do this exercise as a team, use spreadsheet tools that make collaboration easy. As Kumu is a collaborative tool, add your team members to your project.
The technical aspect of this skill-network isn’t too tricky. The challenge is to add all your skills and to take action. If you are interested in a group session to create this skill map, reach out to me or comment on the post. I often find it’s easier working with others as they can see everything I’m blind to.
Quality questions to reflect on your life. This helped me understand myself better.
Reflective journaling to get to know yourself better (I co-created this free resource)
Three ways to think about your skills and how to create your career path
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