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CAREER PLANNING

A 2×2 Matrix to Help You


Prioritize the Skills to Learn Right
Now
by Marc Zao-Sanders
SEPTEMBER 27, 2017

So much to learn, so little time.

The world is bursting with learning. There are


several million business books, 3,000 TED talks,
10,000 MOOCs, hundreds of thousands of e-
learning courses, and millions of self-published
articles on platforms such as LinkedIn and
Medium. The article you’re reading right now is
just one of thousands of articles on HBR.org.
Picking the best and most relevant from all this is
hard.

Yet it’s essential. The modern worker has very


little time for learning — less than 1% of their
time, according to Bersin, a division of Deloitte.
And it’s more important than ever to learn
continuously as the shelf life of skills shorten and
career paths meander and lengthen.
So there’s a significant pressure on us all to learn the right stuff. How do we identify what that is?

One approach is to apply a time-utility analysis (similar in form to a cost-benefit) to the subjects
you’re interested in learning. “Time” is time to learn. It’s effectively the opportunity cost to you of
achieving competence. “Utility” is how much you’re likely to use the desired skill. For example,
today’s manager spends a lot of time emailing, gathering data, running meetings, and making
spreadsheets, so the utility for improving at these activities is especially high.

Combine time and utility, and you get a simple 2×2 matrix with four quadrants:

Learn it right away: high utility, low time-to-learn


Schedule a block of time for learning it, ideally in your calendar: high utility, high time-to-learn
Learn it as the chance arises — on a commute, lunch break, and so on: low utility, low time-to-
learn
Decide whether you need to learn it: low utility, high time-to-learn

Once you’ve decided what you want to learn, you


can use this same framework to zero in on specific
skills to focus on.

Let’s illustrate the method with a single workplace


activity with high utility: spreadsheeting.
Knowledge workers spend almost half an hour in a
spreadsheet every day. And in major corporations,
this is almost synonymous with using Excel: there
are almost a billion users of Microsoft’s spreadsheet
program, and more than four-fifths of businesses
globally use Excel. A time-utility analysis might
suggest you want to get better at it.

But Excel contains over 500 functions and many


more features; that’s a lot to learn. Where would you
even begin? For a time-utility analysis to be of any
use, we need it to help us at this level, down here in the weeds. To get a sense of utility, we reviewed
dozens of articles written by Excel experts about their preferred Excel features. We used this analysis
to compile a list of the 100 most useful Excel functions, features, tips, tricks and hacks, ordered
numerically by utility. We combined this with our own data on how long each of these features takes
users to learn, and plotted the two against each other. (Yes, we got a little excited about this project.
Don’t worry, you don’t have to delve into this level of detail when you’re prioritizing your own
learning.)

As

you’d expect, there’s some correlation (r=0.3), so the more useful items take longer to learn in
general. But the scattered effect gives rise to some useful, tangible pointers for prioritizing what to
learn.

You’ll find the quickest wins in the bottom-right quadrant, which we’ve labeled “Learn it right
away.” In here we have time-saving shortcuts that can be applied frequently, like Ctrl-Y (redo) and
F2 (edit cell) and a nice combination formula that cleanses your spreadsheet of errors (IF(ISERROR)).
The quadrant “Schedule a block of time for learning it” hosts the highly useful but more complex
features, such as conditional formatting and pivot tables — these were deemed the two most useful
on the entire list.

Bottom-left is those less useful but quick-to-learn items like Ctrl-5 (strikethrough) and Show
Formulas (Ctrl¬).

Finally, in the top-left quadrant are the theoretically least appealing items, such as Get External Data
and Text to Columns.

YOU AND YOUR TEAM SERIES But for all of these, you, the individual learner,
Learning will impose your own opinions and experience on
an analysis like this: “Actually, I already know
Ctrl-Y, and I’ll never need to get external data.”
And that helps filter out even more items, leaving
you with an even more manageable list.

How would you apply this to your working,


learning life? You probably don’t want to learn

Learning to Learn only about spreadsheeting, and you’re unlikely to


by Erika Andersen have the kind of data we’ve used above at your
You Can Learn and Get Work Done at the Same fingertips. But you may have an idea of some of
Time
the skills you’d like to acquire or develop.
by Liane Davey

4 Ways to Become a Better Learner


by Monique Valcour Consider the mix of activities in your working day.
What would help you the most? Finally being able
to use Photoshop, getting a grip on Agile
or Waterfall, learning to write more clearly? Are there meta-skills that would help you do all of these
things better — like coming across the way you intend to in meetings, or learning to manage your
time more productively? You could assign approximate scores for time (to learn) and utility for each
of these and plot a scatter chart like the one above. Or you could just estimate: Classify the skills on
your list as either low or high in utility and time to learn, and place them in the corresponding
quadrant. Either way, what shows up in the bottom-right quadrant? You may discover some learning
bargains.

You can use this approach just for yourself, or across a team, department, even your entire company.
Since you probably don’t have much time to learn, learn to make the most of what you have.

Marc Zao-Sanders is CEO and co-founder of ltered.com, an edtech company that uses AI to lift productivity
through skills and learning. Find Marc on LinkedIn: http://linkedin.com/in/marczs.

This article is about CAREER PLANNING


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