What can you do about the half-life of your professional knowledge?


With the exponential growth in information, professionals face a knowledge half-life dilemma.

I love the line in Men in Black where Tommy Lee Jone’s character says:

1,500 years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was the center of the universe. 500 years ago, everybody knew that the Earth was flat. And 15 minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.

Half Life

A half-life is defined as the time taken for something to halve its quantity, most often used in the context of radioactive decay.

So what is this half-life of knowledge?

The half-life of knowledge is becoming more and more of an issue for you as a professional keeping up-to-date and protecting your future career.

It is the amount of time before half of your professional knowledge becomes superseded. Scary.

Samuel Arbesman in his book The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date published in 2013, said that information has a predictable half-life, but the rate varies with topic area.

The body of engineering knowledge changes more slowly than for behavioural sciences, for example. In the health and medical fields the half-life could be a short as two to three years! So by the time a medical student finishes their study the knowledge is already out of date.

While the half-lives of most knowledge-based careers are difficult to determine, there have been estimates for engineering professionals. A century ago, it would take 35 years for half of what an engineer learned when earning their degree to be replaced. Fifty years ago, that time span shrank to a mere ten years. Today it is probably lower, more like five years.

In Thomas Jones’ 1966 paper entitled The Dollars and Sense of Continuing Education, he calculated the effort that would be required for an engineer to stay up to date, assuming a 10-year half-life — he/she would need to devote at least five hours per week, 48 weeks a year, just to stay up to date.

The problem is that we rarely consider the half-life of information. Many assume that whatever they learned in school remains true decades later.

What is more important is what strategies to use to protect yourself.

What can you do about it?

As a professional, you will have already satisfied some ‘hurdle’ requirement to be a professional, such as an engineering degree to become a registered professional engineer.

That base requirement will still be required. Hopefully tertiary institutions will be constantly upgrading the knowledge and skills development provided to meet future work needs. I am not confident that this will happen with current constrained budgets and commercial agendas driving curriculum development.

So options you could consider:

  1. Do Nothing: and hope for the best! You are in the same boat as everybody else, so ‘no worries mate!’ Or hope the government will fix it for us. That’s a very scary thought, considering every time the government fixes things then then have to fix the fixes — just look at any tax code. I think if we are serious as professionals then this is not an option.
  2. LOTJ: Learn on the Job — deliberately plan to increase your skill sets and experience by getting involved in relevant projects, doing employer supported courses and the like. Difficult to get the range of experience needed and to be recognised for what you have achieved. But a low impact on your personal life and budget.
  3. Graduate Degree: Going back to university to get another degree — this means either a coursework qualification such as a masters degree (eg MBA). This involve dedicating years of your life to study, loss of free/family time and a large investment cost. The problem is getting the courses you want or need that are relevant to protect your future career. Most graduate programs are designed on yesterday’s requirements, often include specified courses rather than what you really need and limited in range of topics to choose from.
  4. Micro-Credential: the new era of getting very specific up-to-date skills development and knowledge. Examples online courses such as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) which offer a credential on completing an assessment component (and paying a nominal sum). These can be done at a time and pace to suit you. I believe this is the way professionals need to be thinking in the future.

So take some time to plan your future career. Remember: the faster the pace of knowledge change, the more valuable the skill of learning becomes.

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