Is competence material or immaterial?

”Do you think competence is immaterial or material?”
The question posed to me by Håkan Mitts over lunch caught me off guard. 

I’ve always thought of competence as immaterial, acquired gradually over the years. It becomes refined through systematic learning, trial and error, and encounters and discussions. 

“What if the company has a three-member R&D unit? Doesn’t that mean these people hold competence? And as such it isn’t material?”

The provocative questions put to me by Mitts, a Program Coordinator at Aalto University, make me see why competence could be seen as material in some organizations. 

Understanding competence as material is actually rather natural - the history of the immaterialization of work is after all so very short. Only thirty years ago almost everyone would produce something material through their work. This is no longer the case. 

The work of an increasing share of people is about creating plans and solutions, developing and creating. We still imagine that we are doing something concrete, as was the case for our parents – yet our material print is nothing more than a trace of heat left on the meeting room chair or server in the data center. 

Although our work has immaterialized, companies – our employers and customers – follow the rules of the material world. To make a profit, companies need to be able to change the material world. Money is after all the currency of exchange in the material world. And companies need money to survive. 

Competence is both immaterial and material:

A) Competence is immaterial
Competence is like a cloud hovering around us. 
It grows as we interact with each other. We exchange thoughts face-to-face and online. 
We recommend each other books, blogs, videos and slides, and debate over them in social media. 

The most valuable encounters are created when both aim to genuinely help each other. This reciprocity is made up of two factors:

1) Trust
Trust is born through openness and passion. 

2) Amplification
You need to give to others before receiving something valuable in return. The competence of others needs to be fed. 

When people amplify the competence of others, they gain a network that continually feeds them through the network’s competence. Web-based communication ensure that the network isn’t bound to geography and has no size limit. The value created by this community is growing into the greatest asset of companies. 

B) Competence affects the material world 

Companies need to create as appealing channels as possible to flow the competence of individuals to be part of their business activities.

Immaterial elements have one critical feature as far as business operations are concerned. In becoming tangible, immaterial elements always choose the path of least resistance. 

In other words, an idea or insight is channeled where it’s easiest for it to flow. Management needs to create practices that channel the competence of experts and their networks into what’s profitable. 

So there you have it. 
Competence is an immaterial element but it has has a huge affect on material world. It’s not just the competence of an individual, but the competence of the surrounding community that can be channeled for the company to use. To grow your company’s competence and benefit from it, you must remember three keywords: Trust, Amplify and Flow. 


Our guest blogger Miikka Leinonen, the author of Melt, will be our guest in our Pause by Office Nomad event on March 10th, 2015.



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  • Janne Saarikko
    commented 2015-02-07 12:07:01 +0200
    Thanks Miikka!

    Håkan always has good points and sharp questions.

    I was thinking… Isn’t it so, that material competence relates to material performance, ie. “can fix a lamp” and immaterial competence is more value-add over the material performance ie. “can fix a lamp so it works better and saves energy”?

    Are you getting this?