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Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Use of Knowledge in the Workplace

In this series so far, we’ve talked about the importance of skills and mentality. Upon reflection, I realize I haven’t given much credit to knowledge. But surely knowledge is important at work, right? 

Yes, indeed. This article will explore the use of knowledge in the workplace. Well draw two distinctions one between good grades and knowledge and another between textbook knowledge and industry knowledge. Interestingly, knowledge is useful at work in a different way from what many students think.
High Exam Scores vs. Internalized Knowledge

Though grades are meant to objectively and accurately assess a student’s ability, sometimes in reality they can’t serve that function. Good grades don’t necessarily mean a thorough understanding of the subject for two reasons.

First, the focus of some college exams (especially in Hong Kong and China) is still on memorization rather than analytical and creative thinking. Since the latter are much more important than the former in the job market, exam scores aren’t a proper measure of work ability.

Second, what students can answer correctly in exams may not be what they internalize. They may forget most of what was taught in class within weeks, or maybe even days, after the exam. In that case, even when the subjects are useful at work like statistics, finance and programming languages high grades don’t mean an excellent work performance.

Textbook Knowledge vs. Industry Knowledge

Plus, it’s not just textbook knowledge that matters. Take finance as an example. Market awareness is as important as textbook theories. Sometimes, I wonder which candidate a financial firm will pick if it’s given a choice between a 3.9 GPA student who doesn’t read financial news at all and a 3.3 GPA student who reads The Wall Street Journal two hours every day.

My guess is the company will hire the second student. It’s good to know financial theories, but that’s not enough. You need to have a deep interest in financial markets and keep up-to-date with financial news.

Similarly, if you apply for a position in a policy institute, it helps to be an expert in political theories, but you won’t be hired if you don’t understand national politics and the public sentiment. 

Not only is industry knowledge very useful, it shows your enthusiasm and passion in the field. Its hard to convince the interviewers of your enthusiasm if you dont even bother to pay attention to what is happening in the industry.

In fact, every industry has a set of knowledge that outsiders don’t know. Biochemistry majors won’t understand the process of designing a new drug unless they’ve worked in a pharmaceutical firm. Business majors won’t understand how supply chains are managed globally unless they’ve worked in an international retailer.

The Importance of Internships

This is where internships come in. Internships allow you to build industry knowledge on the job, which is a lesson that you can’t find in a university classroom.

In the past when the number of college students was limited, you might not need a good internship to set yourself apart. However, with increasing competition, and given that firms are trying to cut training costs in this economic recession, its a huge advantage to build industry knowledge and experience early on.

Plus, with an internship in the industry you’re applying to, you’ll be considered a low-risk hire. Since you have experience in the industry and are familiar with it, your decision to return to it suggests youre comfortable working in the industry. All these are reasons why a prestigious internship can greatly improve your job search prospects, not to mention the possibility of getting a return offer after the internship ends.

One Final Tip for Job Seekers 

Sadly, it seems industry knowledge isnt even what students usually perceive as knowledge. This can be a problem because students are expected to demonstrate market awareness in job interviews.

In interviews, its important to show that you have an accurate understanding of the industry. A lot of the times, recruiters are afraid that you want the job only because of some untruthful myths or stereotypes.

For example, people may want a finance, marketing or fashion design job out of the impression that they pay well and let you meet many interesting and successful people. In reality these exciting industries are very competitive. Behind all the glamor, they give huge pressure, and require long work hours and lots of hard work. Youll only get disillusioned if you dont really know what the industry is like beforehand.

To better prepare yourself, read news reports about the industry you want to apply in; go to recruitment talks and career fair and talk to the people already working in the industry; find a relevant internship to get hands-on experience. These steps will put you in a good position when you find a graduate job. 

Questions: Do you agree that college students often pay too little attention to industry knowledge? Do you believe that internships are important? Have internships helped you advance in your career? 


  1. Yes internships are very important to students. Not everyone can apply knowledge acquired in class to real working environment, but at least they can experience the field culture in person. It will be a good opportunity for them to examine themselves, whether it is wise to enter that career. =]

  2. Thank you for your comment, Lee!
    Yes, you're exactly right. Internships let students experience the industry culture and help them understand themselves better. Both are very helpful to career development. =]