Obsolescence of Knowledge and Skills

Obsolescence of Knowledge and SkillsThe obsolescence of knowledge and skills has long been recognized as a problem affecting individual careers and organizational effectiveness. While obsolescence has been discussed from a management as well as a psychological perspective at least as far back as 1930, concern over the problem became widespread following the rapid changes that began during the post-World War II era.

The problem of obsolescence has been most often addressed with reference to professional or managerial careers in organizations. However, the problem also affects careers in which professionals are self-employed (e.g., medicine and law) as well as in other occupations that require a body of knowledge and skills. Therefore, obsolescence has an impact on knowledge workers, a widely diverse and rapidly growing population of workers who require a base of specialized and practical knowledge acquired through education and experience.

Defining Obsolescence

Obsolescence can be defined as the degree to which knowledge workers lack the up-to-date knowledge or skills necessary to maintain effective performance in either their current or future work roles. There are several concepts or dimensions that are part of this definition of obsolescence, and they include the following:

  1. A lack of new knowledge or skills. Obsolescence occurs when the individual lacks new knowledge or skills. Obsolescence involves a failure on the part of the knowledge worker to keep current. However, obsolescence is a matter of degree. While knowledge workers typically need to deal with the problem of staying up to date, few are totally obsolete. Even among those who do stay current, it is practically impossible to be completely up to date.
  2. Obsolescence becomes a problem for the individual as well as the organization when it results in ineffectiveness. However, most types of ineffectiveness would not be attributed to obsolescence. For example, a knowledge worker who may have the most up-to-date knowledge and skills but is unwilling or unable to use them may be ineffective but not obsolescent. Such ineffectiveness may be attributable to personal (e.g., motivational) or organizational (e.g., poor supervision) factors that can inhibit performance. Only ineffectiveness that stems directly from a lack of current knowledge and skills should be attributed to obsolescence.
  3. Job and professional roles. Obsolescence has most often been connected to the effectiveness of performance in one’s current work role. Consequently, knowledge workers who lack the knowledge or skills necessary to perform their current jobs effectively are obsolescent. This has sometimes been referred to as job assignment obsolescence or simply job obsolescence.

However, other types of obsolescence relevant to specialist or professional career roles have also been identified, although with less frequency than the job assignment type. Those roles may be affected by professional obsolescence, which occurs when individuals do not keep up with the latest developments in their disciplines. Such obsolescence potentially impairs effectiveness of performance in future work roles during the knowledge worker’s career.

Although knowledge workers may be up to date in their present job assignments, they may not have kept broadly current in their professional disciplines, and so their capability to take on different or greater responsibilities becomes more limited. For example, this type of professional obsolescence became visible among many knowledge workers who were terminated in the aerospace and defense industries. They were very likely current in the specialized knowledge and skills required by the jobs in their industry. However, they may have failed to maintain the broader professional knowledge and skills that would have more easily facilitated their reemployment in a different job role related to their discipline but in another industry.

Causes of Obsolescence

The complexity of obsolescence is manifested by multiple contributing factors. These can be somewhat simplified by applying a theoretical model that integrates these factors and shows some of the possible relationships among them (see model in the figure above). According to the model, obsolescence is due to environmental change, individual characteristics, the nature of the work, and organizational climate.

Environmental Change

The roots of obsolescence have been traced to the knowledge revolution, the information explosion, and the dynamic changes that have occurred in technology, organizations, occupations, and management methods. Such environmental change is the driving force toward creating a knowledge economy that produces and distributes ideas and information, requiring a workforce dominated by knowledge workers. However, this knowledge economy, in turn, has not only accelerated the rate of change but has also contributed to the rapid obsolescence of knowledge workers themselves. Therefore, environmental change can be depicted as all-pervasive, directly affecting the obsolescence of knowledge workers as well as the individual, work, and organizational factors that contribute to the problem.

Individual Characteristics

Knowledge workers differ among each other not only in their degree of obsolescence but also in many other individual or personal characteristics that may either predispose them to keep abreast with new developments or contribute to their becoming out of date. These individual characteristics are demographic as well as psychological in nature and can have a direct effect on obsolescence.


It is widely assumed that obsolescence increases with age. Acceptance of this assumption has institutionalized the stereotype in many organizations that obsolescence is an inevitable consequence of aging. This can result in a self-fulfilling prophecy that as knowledge workers get older, they are more likely to be treated as obsolescent, and consequently their behavior reflects the stereotype. There is conflicting evidence regarding obsolescence and age that can generally be classified into one of three types of relationships, based largely on cross-sectional research. One relationship found that peak contributions and performance occur when knowledge workers are in their thirties and steadily decline among older groups. These results may reflect the self-fulfilling prophecy, as well as reinforce the stereotype, that older knowledge workers are more obsolescent.

The second type of relationship is a consistent upward trend in contributions and performance with increasing age that tends to reach a peak for those over age 50. This contradicts the first relationship that obsolescence increases with age. The third general relationship found between age and contributions or performance among knowledge workers is twin peaked or bimodal. Typically, contributions and performance are highest among knowledge workers who are at an early career stage (in their thirties), after which there is a drop-off for those in mid-career followed by a resurgence among those who are over age 50 and in the later stages of their professional life. Such results indicate that there is not a simple relationship between increasing age and obsolescence. A possible reason for a peak appearing early as well as later in the career may be that there are two populations of knowledge workers: one whose contributions and performance decline with age and another that either maintains the level of contributions and performance or improves them over time. A more definitive answer to how age and obsolescence are related awaits longitudinal research.


Related to increasing age is the half-life of a professional education. The half-life can be viewed as the time it takes after completion of formal studies for half of the knowledge acquired in one’s professional studies to be no longer useful or applicable because of new developments in the field. Therefore, it is the length of time that has elapsed since a knowledge worker has completed his or her education, rather than age, that may be a crucial factor in susceptibility to obsolescence. There is evidence that the half-life has been growing ever shorter, which is in keeping with the accelerating rate of creation and application of new knowledge in a wide variety of fields, especially those affected by rapid technological change. However, the half-life of some fields has been found to be shorter than others—with four years not atypical and some even shorter. Software engineering, computer science, and fields impacted by changes in information technology typically have the shortest half-life. Therefore, knowledge workers in fields with a short half-life have the greatest need to stay up to date.

Psychological Factors

Although the half-life of a professional education may play an important role in creating a susceptibility to obsolescence, personal characteristics that are psychological in nature may be critical. If in fact there are two populations of knowledge workers, one that becomes obsolescent and another that stays up to date despite increasing age, it would be useful to identify some of the more important psychological factors that contribute to differential development.

An important psychological characteristic that can facilitate or inhibit obsolescence among knowledge workers is their cognitive ability. Different types of cognitive abilities appear to be related to obsolescence, depending on the occupation. For example, limited proficiency in mathematics is associated with obsolescence among engineers, whereas more general problem-solving abilities are important for managers to stay current. Moreover, the cognitive strength that knowledge workers bring to their first jobs can help determine the degree to which they stay abreast of new knowledge during subsequent career stages. Knowledge workers who enter the workforce with weak cognitive abilities would be more obsolescence prone. However, there is evidence that some cognitive abilities improve throughout the career, largely as a result of experience.

Knowledge workers who fail to keep current in their field, even when they have the ability to do so, very likely lack motivation. Research supports the great importance that lack or loss of motivation plays in knowledge workers becoming obsolescent. Those with strong motivation apparently do not experience the decline found among those in their forties and tend to prolong their achievement over a broad span of their career. Motivational changes that occur during the midlife or mid-career crisis may help explain the different relationships found for age. During the midlife period, some knowledge workers may perceive that what they have been doing is no longer fulfilling or important and that they have not attained the success in their careers that they expected. Obsolescence is a likely outcome among those who have not been able to cope with their mid-career crisis adequately, whereas those who remain current may not have experienced the crisis or resolved it successfully.

Other individual characteristics, related to motivation, that can affect obsolescence have been identified. Occupational interests of knowledge workers are well established at the start of the career, remaining highly stable thereafter and help influence occupational choice as well as other career-related outcomes. The degree to which knowledge workers engage in activities likely to keep them up to date with new developments is influenced by their interests.

More directly related to motivation are individual differences in needs. However, unlike interests, which remain relatively stable, needs can change greatly over time and contribute to motivational changes affecting obsolescence. For example, security needs of knowledge workers tend to be relatively strong at the start of their careers but then decrease in strength in the next five years, whereas their needs for growth increase significantly in intensity, regardless of career success. Knowledge workers whose careers are successful are able to satisfy their growth needs, such as achievement, esteem, and self-development, whereas the satisfaction of such needs drops among those who do not experience career success. If the frustration of growth needs continues into the mid-career stage, they may level off or diminish, whereas security needs are likely to increase. As growth needs level off or diminish in mid-career, obsolescence can become a problem among knowledge workers.

Growth needs are satisfied through the achievement of relevant goals. The most important goals for new knowledge workers are challenging work and opportunities for advancement. These goals can change during the career, depending on whether or not they are achieved. Also, a socialization process occurs in which the individual’s goals may become more congruent with organizational goals. Knowledge workers’ goals that satisfy growth needs may be classified as either (1) local—oriented to the individual’s organization or (2) cosmopolitan—directed to one’s profession. Obsolescence is most likely to occur among knowledge workers who lack a cosmopolitan goal orientation focused on doing work involving new ideas, acquiring new knowledge, and attaining professional recognition.

By mid-career, knowledge workers who have not kept up to date may seek to satisfy their growth needs by striving for local goals such as advancement. If they reach a stage in their careers when neither cosmopolitan nor local goals are attainable, security goals become important. At that stage, obsolescence may be irreversible. For those who keep up to date, such goal attainment requires that energy be expended. Therefore, a lack or loss of energy also predisposes knowledge workers to obsolescence. Moreover, individual initiative has been identified as a personal characteristic that contributes to the expenditure of energy to stay up to date. Initiative involves not only starting an action but also the capacity to discover new ways of goal attainment. Therefore, knowledge workers with low initiative would be more likely to become obsolescent. Initiative may be related to career resilience, one component of a multidimensional career motivation construct. Resilience includes adaptability to change, willingness to take risks, and having self-confidence, all of which have been identified as individual characteristics of knowledge workers who stay up to date.

Nature of the Work

There is consistent evidence that the nature of the work carried out by knowledge workers is the most important factor contributing to obsolescence, both directly and by its effects on individual characteristics (see the figure above). There are several aspects of the work carried out by knowledge workers that can affect their obsolescence.

Although challenging work is one of the most important goals of knowledge workers, most feel that their knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) are not utilized well. Poor utilization affects the development of knowledge workers and can occur early in the career.

The First Job Experience

There is consistent evidence that the nature of the work experienced by knowledge workers in their first job has long-lasting effects on their career development and can contribute directly to obsolescence. For example, the Bell System’s classic long-term Management Progress Study found that, for newly hired college graduates, the work challenge during the first year had a greater effect on later career growth than the challenge of succeeding years. Work challenge included the degree to which the new managers were expected to utilize their knowledge and skills, use new methods, solve novel problems, apply their learning capacity, become involved in self-development, commit their time and energy, and demonstrate initiative. Those who had challenging work in their first job increased their motivation to achieve and their concern for accomplishment, as distinct from advancement or salary increases. Work challenge may be even more critical to knowledge workers in technology. For example, longitudinal studies of engineers in several organizations demonstrated that being initially assigned to work that demands utilization of technical knowledge and skills results in higher levels of job performance, professional contributions, and competence in their subsequent careers. However, the great­est effect of challenging work occurred among engineers who were more capable to start with. This demonstrates how professional career development can occur when knowledge workers have the appro­priate abilities and the work environment demands utilization of those abilities. The effects of work chal­lenge may be another demonstration of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Knowledge workers who are expected to utilize their knowledge and skills in challenging work in their first job will be motivated to increase their competence early in their careers. Conversely, those whose utilization is much more restricted are at risk for becoming obsolescent.

Dimensions of Utilization

Utilization of knowledge and skills is an important aspect of work challenge and has been found to be strongly related to obsolescence. Two relatively independent dimensions of utilization have been identified, misutilization and underutilization. Misutilization occurs when light intellectual demands are combined with heavy time pressure. For example, misutilization of knowledge workers results from time pressure to carry out routine assignments that should be done by clerical personnel or technicians. In a study of engineers, the two most important causes of obsolescence were related to misutilization, namely, (1) work assignments that do not require knowledge of the latest developments and (2) the pressure of schedule demands that leave no time or energy for study. Three-fourths of the engineers who reported considerable misutilization in their work had difficulty keeping up with new developments. On the other hand, over half of those who felt that misutilization is not a problem reported having no trouble keeping up to date.

Work assignments that do not utilize professional knowledge, skills, and abilities may also result in underutilization, which is similar to misutilization insofar as they both involve light intellectual demands. However, the underutilized knowledge worker has light, rather than heavy, time demands. Underutilization apparently occurs most frequently during the first job and affects the new employee’s development, because the job itself does not offer challenge. However, obsolescence may not occur as readily as it would if the professional were misutilized.

Nevertheless, either can contribute to obsolescence. Underutilized knowledge workers who do not possess the initiative to take advantage of the light time pressure at their job in order to keep abreast of new developments could also be on the path to obsolescence.

Changes in Job Assignments

Knowledge workers who have had frequent changes in job assignments during their career more easily adapt to change and adjust quickly to their new responsibilities. The challenge provided by frequent job assignment changes serves to maximize utilization of their KSAs and minimize obsolescence. There is evidence that providing different job assignments starting at the beginning of the career is highly associated with remaining professionally up to date in later years. However, not all changes in job assign­ments help knowledge workers keep up to date. For instance, being assigned many routine jobs does not provide challenge, and would tend to contribute to obsolescence, very likely through misutilization. In addition, job assignments should last long enough for the knowledge worker to become proficient in the specialties required to perform the job effectively.

Specialization and Diversity of Job Assignments

Knowledge workers often become proficient in narrow specializations in their job assignments. However, many wish to utilize their abilities in a broad field of interest. Knowledge workers who have a wide understanding of important new fields rather than a thorough knowledge of narrow specialties make greater contributions to both their organization and their professions. This is even more characteristic of those who are older. A diversity of specializations, rather than only one, not only enhances a knowledge worker’s usefulness to the organization but also stim­ulates a wide range of professional contributions. On the other hand, being assigned to a narrow area over a long period of time can lead to an inability to perform other parts of the job. Knowledge workers feel that obsolescence is likely to occur when the work becomes so specialized that the broader base of knowledge is unused and forgotten. Moreover, the single most impor­tant stimulation for professional development and growth is on-the-job problem solving that requires a diversity of challenging work assignments.

Organizational Climate

Organizational climate includes attributes of the work environment determined by management and organizational practices that affect obsolescence. According to the model in the figure above, organizational climate not only has a direct effect on obsolescence, but it also affects the nature of the work, which has a major impact on obsolescence. Providing chal­lenge through utilization of knowledge and skills is to some degree determined by the technology of the organization. But organizational climate can also stimulate or stifle utilization, which, in turn, affects obsolescence. Some aspects of organizational climate that have been identified as relevant to obsolescence include colleague interaction and communication, leadership style and expertise, and management policies, as well as their effects on organizational communication, influence, uncertainty, and rewards.

Colleague Interaction and Communication

One aspect of organizational climate is created by the colleagues of the knowledge worker. Interaction and communication with colleagues provide an important source of stimulation for keeping current. However, the impact of such communication on obsolescence will vary with the particular group of knowledge workers. For example, one study demonstrated that engineers, compared to scientists, receive much more of the information needed to stay up to date from interpersonal communication within their own organizations.

How work groups are organized can motivate knowledge workers to gain new knowledge and skills. Working with people from diverse fields can stimulate knowledge workers to learn about different specialties. Not only does diversity in the composition of work groups help stimulate professionals to keep informed of new developments, but including at least one “gatekeeper” helps in the flow of current information. Gatekeepers are generally the most competent and up-to-date knowledge workers in their group. They stay in close contact with other gatekeepers in the organization as well as in the external world and keep the organization current with new developments.

The duration of time knowledge workers have been in the same group appears to influence the stimulation provided by colleagues. For instance, interaction with colleagues and diversity of group members have been found to be effective in stimulating competence in both job and profession only when the knowledge workers have not worked together for too long. After several years, individuals who have worked closely together no longer provide stimulation and novelty. This would suggest that job assignments as well as group composition should be changed periodically.

Leadership Style and Expertise

A participatory style of management has been widely advocated as the best way to motivate knowledge workers, since it provides them with a considerable amount of influence in decision making about their work. Although giving knowledge workers freedom to explore new ideas and to pursue their own interests is related to remaining up to date, providing them with freedom is most effective when the supervisor consults them before making important decisions affecting the work of the group. The development of subordinates can be stimulated or stifled, depending on the degree to which the supervisor understands the current knowledge and skills relevant to the work group. The technical competence of man­agers is more important than their human relations skills in encouraging knowledge workers to keep up to date. Respect for their supervisors’ competence and judgment is the most important reason knowledge workers comply with supervisory directives. Technical expertise is the most prominent basis for supervisory influence, and it also has a very strong relationship to the knowledge contributions, satisfaction, and performance of their work group.

A climate that discourages obsolescence can be created by competent managers who embrace and utilize new methods. For example, knowledge workers whose managers encouraged them to use major technical advances tended to be more up to date in their specialties. Alternatively, those whose managers emphasized meeting schedules were more likely to be obsolescent. Since managers can determine how the work assignments are distributed, they can use the work itself to motivate subordinates to stay up to date. Just as managers can stimulate their work group members to stay up to date through challenging and diverse job assignments, they also may contribute to obsolescence by assigning work that does not properly utilize professional KSAs. The manager’s style, combined with expertise, can be a powerful influence in creating a climate of utilization and challenge that can motivate knowledge workers to keep up to date. Since managers can have a direct influence on the updating behavior of their work group members, they also play an important role in encouraging individuals to participate in continuing education activities.

Management Policies

The role of managers in motivating their work group members to stay up to date is limited by external constraints created by top management policies. For example, knowledge workers complain about management policies relevant to schedules or work assignments that resulted in underutilization or misutilization. Such policies came from top management and virtually ensured that obsolescence would be a problem among knowledge workers in their organization. Although underutilization or misutilization can be intended results of management policy decisions, such problems more likely occur as an unintended consequence of policy.

Communication within organizations is critical for many knowledge workers to stay up to date. However, a major complaint is that the lack of regular information exchange among departments as well as between different levels in the organization affects knowledge workers’ ability to influence the decision-making processes. Management policies that create a climate in which knowledge workers have little or no influence on decisions that affect their work can result in underutilization, as well as greater uncertainty. Such a climate of uncertainty may involve frequent changes or cancellations in scheduled objectives, job require­ments that are not clear, misinformation, and job assignments with inadequate feedback. Policies that create an organizational climate laden with uncertainty can have pervasive effects among knowledge workers. The symptoms are poor communication, limited influence, avoidance of risks, and underutilization—all of which can contribute to obsolescence.

Among the most important policies directly affecting obsolescence are those that determine whether or not professional growth and development are rewarded by the organization. There is evidence that the reward climate created by management policies can enhance or inhibit obsolescence. If knowledge workers do not see that their efforts in self-development are rewarded by the organization, the likelihood that they will become obsolescent is increased. For example, knowledge workers who feel that keeping themselves abreast of new developments will not result in more challenging work assignments, salary increases, or promotions are also more obsolescent. On the other hand, those who perceive that their organizations reward updating with challenging work, promotions, and pay are also the most up to date. In a study of computer marketing and support professionals, participation in self-development activities was perceived as most likely to lead to worthwhile accomplishment and self-esteem as well as opportunities for promotion. Furthermore, the expectation that organizational rewards would be forthcoming for updating efforts was significantly related to current and future efforts at self-development. The organizational reward climate apparently has an important impact on the effort expended by professionals to stay up to date.

However, when organizations reward professional development, older knowledge workers may be excluded. For example, for older managers, those who possess the most initiative, self-assurance, and intelligence tend to be rewarded the least, although it was the opposite for younger managers. By discouraging development of older knowledge workers who are most capable of and still desire growth, management avoids having to make an investment that may provide a short-lived and limited rate of return to the organization. Such a management policy reinforces the self-fulfilling prophecy that obsolescence is inevitable with increasing age. However, rewarding self-development reinforces motivation toward professional growth even among older knowledge workers, who, with their experience and loyalty, can continue to contribute if they are encouraged to remain up to date.

See also:


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