Simon Terry

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What’s Your Knowledge Proficiency?

Many people are constrained by a binary view of knowledge. They focus on whether they know something or not. In a network era, it can be more useful to ask what level of knowledge will enable a working proficiency to learn more from professional networks. You don’t need to be a master in each area of knowledge but a functional proficiency will enable you to access the knowledge required from your networks.

We are familiar in learning languages with explicitly describing different levels of proficiency. The US State Department has a 6 level scale for proficiency of language ability. Understanding proficiency in language in this way helps them to separate functional levels of performance in a language in ways that are important to their work as diplomats.

  • Level 0 – No Practical Proficiency: No practical speaking proficiency. No practical reading proficiency.
  • Level 1 – Elementary Proficiency: Able to satisfy routine travel needs and minimum courtesy requirements. Able to read some personal and place names, street signs, office and shop designations, numbers and isolated words and phrases
  • Level 2 – Limited Working Proficiency Able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements. Able to read simple prose, in a form equivalent to typescript or printing, on subjects within a familiar context
  • Level 3 – Minimum Professional Proficiency Able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations on practical, social, and professional topics. Able to read standard newspaper items addressed to the general reader, routine correspondence, reports, and technical materials in the individual’s special field.
  • Level 4 – Full Professional Proficiency Able to use the language fluently and accurately on all levels pertinent to professional needs. Able to read all styles and forms of the language pertinent to professional needs.
  • Level 5 – Native or Bilingual Proficiency Equivalent to that of an educated native speaker. Equivalent to that of an educated native.

We don’t see language proficiency as a binary. We learn language through using it in interactions with others. We understand it is a complex skill and an ongoing challenge of mastery of increasingly complex interpersonal interactions. We understand that there is not a stock of language to know. We recognize that there is an ongoing flow of learning to develop and that with enough skill to participate in the work we can accelerate our journey to mastery through interactions.

The digital network economy has made it more evident that knowledge can be accessed from others when we have sufficient proficiency. When we apply a similar logic to learning in new areas of knowledge in a network economy, we can see that we can draw parallels to a proficiency structure for knowledge:

  • Novice (Levels 0 & 1 above): Not enough knowledge to do more than make personal connections with knowledge experts. Struggle to sustain a conversation in a new knowledge area.
  • Working Proficiency (Levels 2 & 3): Enough knowledge to engage in increasingly complex discussions in the knowledge area and put some of the knowledge to use. A working proficiency of the jargon and structure of the main body of knowledge in the area. However, regularly experiences the limits of their understanding, can identify those who know more and can use this skill as a guide to learn more from masters in the field.
  • Mastery (Levels 4 & 5): Mastery is not an endpoint. It is a state of ongoing improvement in conjunction with peers.  An individual at this level has enough knowledge to lead the development of the discipline or knowledge area and to help others to enhance their knowledge. There is no mastery without practice.

The goal of learning in the modern workplace should be to use a broad range of learning solutions to first achieve a working proficiency. From that point an individual can participate in work and continue to access support to advance towards mastery. With a working proficiency, personal knowledge mastery and other forms of social learning are increasingly accessible to guide an individual’s practice to mastery. An individual with a working proficiency is better enabled to manage their own learning in networks.


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