Social Media and the Four Stages of Competence

Posted by Rich McElaney

The Four Stages of Competence is a learning model attributed to Noel Burch at Gordon Training International in the early 70's. The basic premise is that as a person attempts to learn a new skill, they progress through each of the four stages prior to attaining some level of mastery of the skill. I first encountered this model in a sales training class for a marketing company I worked for in the late 80's and I remember thinking it had a pretty strong correlation to the level of awareness our prospect base had of the services and solutions we offered. That awareness, or lack thereof, extended to prospects' ability to objectively assess the root causes that made them solid candidates for our services.

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Flash forward to today and an eerily similar parallel is playing out on the social media landscape. As I review the many conversations I've had with clients, friends, family and prospects about social media's impact on business,  it would appear that the model is alive and well. Let's take a look at each of the stages and the behavioral keys in each - as they apply to the acceptance and use of social media by businesses.

Stage One - Unconscious Incompetence. The short version - they don't know that they don't know. At this stage, companies are not aware of the tools and the platforms (or they refuse to learn about them) and are also not aware of the benefits provided by such.  I don't believe that many companies fall into this category - not at this stage of social media development. More often than not, it's a case of not understanding how social media can benefit there businesses - possibly coupled with a lack of motivation to test.

Stage Two - Conscious Incompetence. They know that they don't know. In stage two, there's an emerging awareness that social media is prevalent and it's being used by many other companies - most likely even by close competitors. Some companies in this stage are going through a trial and error process - feeling their way through things, making those tentative first steps - based on first-hand observations and what they glean from their peers. This is such a pivotal stage - and the conscious awareness, if acute enough, can propel rapid adoption of social media.

Stage Three - Conscious Competence. They know that they know. At this stage, there's lots of activity, there's a purpose behind the process, there's a ton of learning and the efforts are guided by the infinite loop of measurement and refinement. Being social is still a large amount of conscious effort and it may not yet manifest in a completely natural way - but it's closer than ever. The deep seated thought might very well be - " social media is actually making a difference for my company - and it's kinda fun!"

Stage Four - Unconscious Competence. They know, but don't consciously think about it - they just do it very well.  I think the hallmark of achievement at this stage is total and uncompromising integration of social into a company's culture. Learning and growth never end, but there is a palpable sense of calm - knowing that social engagement - at a very high level - is baked into the company's daily interactions, both internally and externally. Can you say Zen?

It would be a very interesting exercise to survey businesses using this competency scale to understand where they think they fall. Maybe even more telling would be an objective assessment using today's available tools to measure the visible presence and integration of social media for business benefit. I'll leave you with the biggest question on many minds -  where do you think the majority of businesses are today in their competency journey?

Tags: social media success, social media, social media competency