Saturday, March 01, 2008

Does experience matter?

There's been a lot of talk this election season about whether experience matters when it comes to the job of U.S. president.

There's been a lot of back and forth, but I haven't heard a lot of discussion about whether there's any research related to the question. A lot of folks might be surprised to learn there's actually quite a bit of research directly related to this point. And we can use it to inform decisions like selecting a president--or any other leader for that matter.

So what does the research say? The best sources of research and analysis on this topic (e.g., this one and this one among others) have reached some general conclusions:

1. The most important conclusion is that the answer depends on how you define both experience (e.g., amount, time, type) and job performance (e.g., task, contextual) and the particular job you're looking at. There is no single answer.

2. Experience does predict job performance, but not as well as, say, cognitive ability--this is particularly true for high-complexity jobs.

3. Length of experience best predicts job performance when incumbents have relatively low amounts of experience (e.g., entry-level jobs).

4. Length of experience best predicts job performance when the job is low-complexity. At high levels of complexity it does significantly worse at predicting performance. After, say, about 5 years of experience, more doesn't seem to add anything to predicting performance.

5. Prediction is increased when we look at amount of experience performing particular tasks rather than length of experience. This makes sense--just because someone's held a job for 20 years doesn't mean they've performed the tasks you're interested in (and done them well).

So what does all this mean for, say, choosing a president? I'm afraid the answer is not simple, which is as it should be. Pure amount of experience doesn't appear to be all that important after a few years (although this is difficult to analyze since there's only one incumbent at a time!). Ultimately the question is what type of experience is important--and THAT question hasn't been answered.

For a highly complex job like president, simply looking at experience does not seem the best way to measure and predict performance. So from a personnel assessment standpoint, how would we hypothetically select a president? I'll cover that in my next post: Hiring a President.

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