What You Know vs. Who You Know

Last night I was speaking with Moses, a visitor from Kenya, about the difficulty young people have finding jobs in his homeland, even when they have a degree. Because, he said, “It is not what you know that matters but who you know.”

Now this is a phrase I have also heard used to describe the job market in North America, where I live. Heck I’ve probably said it myself. And it is sometimes even true here. But not nearly as much as it is in Kenya, where relationships rule. Family ties, tribal ties, village ties. Those bonds count for more than any mere piece of paper, no matter what kind of degree it confers on the bearer.

Whereas for most jobs here in the west you need a CV and what matters on that CV matters a great deal. If, for example, a CEO tries to hire his unskilled nephew as his CFO over a competing candidate with two MBAs and a carefully documented track record of success, there will usually be serious resistance from the rest of the organization. Though of course relationships do always help. But if you don’t have skills or knowledge, relationships are not usually enough in the long run.

And so how do these two hiring systems perform at a societal level? Kenya’s oral culture, ruled as it is by relationships, undervalues merit and so ends up with many incompetent and irresponsible people doing jobs they should not be doing. This is a huge issue for a complex society and one (but just one) of the major reasons that Kenyan society, like so many other oral cultures, is unable to lift itself out of the mess it is in. Whereas in the literate west, people who are good at what they do are generally (though of course not always) rewarded over people who have little or less skill. Largely because paper allows for objective measurement and comparison of skillsets. And so sometimes things get done. And sometimes they even get done well. (Though we suffer in other ways from our disdain for relationships here in the west.)

But this ties in to the principle that evolution rewards efficiency, which I address in my book. For oral cultures are always less efficient than literate cultures. Yet digital culture is most efficient of all. And one of the ways this plays out is that in digital culture people are not employed based on who they know as in an oral culture, or on what they know as in a literate culture, but on both who they know and what they know. For although one’s online reputation and networks are keys to career development in the digital age, those relationships are filtered through a competitive global marketplace for talent where skills and trackable, provable knowledge are also highly regarded.

So here is the an equation explaining the social technology of hiring based on what I call the Three Operating Systems of Human Civilization

OS1 = oral culture = who you know = efficient
OS2 = literate culture = what you know = super-efficient
OS3 = networked culture = who you know + what you know = hyper-efficient

Does this reflect your experience?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

Up ↑