Skip to main content



In our pursuit of skills training, don't overlook know-how

What can robots do? This was the theme in a recent episode of “Last Week Tonight”, a popular American news satire programme.

To develop know-how, consider learning in community, rather than head to school reflexively, say the authors.

To develop know-how, consider learning in community, rather than head to school reflexively, say the authors.

Follow us on TikTok and Instagram, and join our Telegram channel for the latest updates.

What can robots do? This was the theme in a recent episode of “Last Week Tonight”, a popular American news satire programme.

Host John Oliver asked a group of young children what they wanted to do when they grow up. For every job that these kids aspired to do — for example, drummer, policeman and fireman — Oliver was able to say that a robot can do that, to the bemused horror of the children. “What can I do?” one kid asked, in exasperation.   

As robots do more, people will need to do what remains beyond robots. In the race against technology, people will need to forget and learn anew. And repeat.

In brief: lifelong learning.

This has taken the form of SkillsFuture in Singapore — a “national movement to provide Singaporeans with the opportunities to develop their fullest potential throughout life, regardless of their starting points.”

While pundits risk getting their predictions on the future of work and the skills needed hideously wrong, the question of what is a skill remains relevant. How is it different from knowledge and traits? Can it be taught? And who teaches it?

One idea is that skills enable us to perform tasks.

In fact, the skills movement in Singapore and elsewhere is premised on a basic idea: Take work. Decompose it into tasks and skills. Train people in those skills.

A cottage industry has grown to define the tasks that a worker in an occupation performs in an industry, for example, a business development manager in logistics.

A parallel cottage industry offers training at universities, private centres, polytechnics, the Institute of Technical Education and others.

In cataloguing skills, however, we run the risk of only specifying what can be specified, not what might be salient now and, more importantly, in the unpredictable future.

Harvard University complexity economist Ricardo Hausmann distinguishes between knowledge and know-how. Knowledge can be codified. It can be embedded in tools.

Know-how, on the other hand, is the “capacity to do things that we aren’t fully conscious of and that we don’t understand”, he writes. It “exists only as a particular wiring of the brain.” It is hard to specify, codify and embed.

For instance, the ability to reflect — to consider what works and what to do differently — is a form of know-how crucial to mastering a skill. It is a “cross-cutting” capacity.

But it is unlikely to feature in a catalogue of skills. If it does, it probably shows up as an attribute or trait, such as someone thoughtful and introspective. Or it shows up as an adjective, such as the skill of “reflective practice”.  

These adjectives are hard to teach.

You pick them up obliquely, while doing something else. In The English Teacher, R.K. Narayan writes of the “game-way in studies”. The main character, Krishna, quits teaching English in college to join a pre-school in which the children learn to explore, create, interact – through play.

You pick them up, while emulating grand-masters. Think: pugilists and their disciples in wu xia stories. Masters and apprentices. Or mentors.

You probably don’t pick it up by reading a textbook, working through a 10-year series of test questions or listening to a PowerPoint presentation.

“No child ever learned curiosity by filling out curiosity worksheets,” journalist Paul Tough writes in Helping Children Succeed, though not for lack of trying.

Some will counter, however, that skills and know-how are compatible. Just because we train people to code doesn’t mean that they can’t learn to be reflective.

Yet when we focus on teaching skills, we risk doing so in a way that overlooks know-how.

For example, lecturing students about best practices or assigning worksheets, instead of letting them learn from trying, erring and peer critiquing.

Further, adults may go to training centres, away from grand-masters on the factory floor; children to tuition centres, away from playgrounds.

If we try to teach know-how by making it explicit, we may get it wrong.

Top executives often decide based on their “gut”, but hide their reliance on it, since they aren’t conscious of the reasons for it. Instead, they produce reasons after the fact, even though this isn’t how they decide, writes psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer.

In other words, when we explain what we aren’t conscious of, such as tacit know-how and gut instincts, we may inaccurately describe the process.

How then might we help people to develop know-how?

First, take the typically formal approaches to developing capabilities in firms, such as courses, milestone programmes and so forth. Beyond such structured methods, we also know that mentoring — in the main, a soft skill — is an increasingly important part of developing people.

Mentoring is most effective when an organisation’s leaders form close ties with co-workers and brave the messy world of human relationships. What better way to develop know-how than mentoring people on the job, in the field, and in the trenches?

Second, consider learning in community, rather than head to school reflexively. Indeed, the language we use betrays our underlying assumption: we go to school. In these disruptive and complex times, “school” is everywhere and is always in.

Research group Institute for the Future imagines that learning could occur beyond schools, based on blockchain technology. Employers and hobbyists can impart learning. They verify that skills and know-how have been developed.

Third, resist the tyranny of the timetable.

Let children play, in the jungle, on the beach or in the drain, in an unstructured way. Not fill their days with piano and football classes, if only to simply keep up with other parents.

Furthermore, if we accept that we cannot know ahead of time what sorts of new skills will be useful in the future, then we had better mark out some space and time in the present to tinker and daydream and to give serendipity a chance to work.

As Oliver put it, a robot can do much. He ended that episode by getting his young studio guests to recite what he thought was an appropriate mantra for the world of Industry 4.0: to aspire to doing “a series of non-routine tasks that require social intelligence, complex critical thinking and creative problem solving.”

In other words, to be a human.



Terence Poon and Adrian W. J. Kuah are respectively associate director and director at the Futures Office, National University of Singapore. This is their personal comment.

Related topics

skills know-how SkillsFuture work

Read more of the latest in




Stay in the know. Anytime. Anywhere.

Subscribe to get daily news updates, insights and must reads delivered straight to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, I agree for my personal data to be used to send me TODAY newsletters, promotional offers and for research and analysis.