Three Classic Organizational Skills Still in Demand Today

Certain in-demand organizational skills last century are also desired by employers in the 21st Century. Some things don’t change.

A classic view of 20th Century work skills model was contained in an article titled “Skills of the Administrator” published in the Harvard Business Review (Katz,1955). The author promoted the view that the necessary skills needed in modern organizational life can be grouped into three general areas:

  • Technical Skills
  • Conceptual Skills, and
  • Human Relations Skills

“95 percent of American men estimate they are in the top 50 percent of social skills.” — From a survey in Psychology Today

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Three Classic Organizational Skills

Technical Skills

Katz defined technical skills as the:

  • Knowledge of methods, processes, procedures, and techniques for conducting a specialized activity, and
  • The ability to operate tools and equipment.

Every organization, no matter how new, requires technical skills of some type since all employees must use tools and work with machines. This definition fits many two and four-year college degrees, and what is learned in apprentice programs. 

Some examples of technical degrees include engineering and its specialties, molecular biology, forensic pathology, accounting, lab technicians of all types, and medical specialty areas such as cardiology. 

Typical trades requiring specialized technical expertise include plumbers, welders, and CNC operators. But the technical area does not always require a high level of training since janitors, window washers, and maids also use tools.

For example, a story is told about a young man, who was hired to work at a supermarket.

He reported for his first day of work and the store manager greeted him with a warm handshake and a smile, gave him a broom and said, “Your first job will be to sweep out the store.” “But I’m a college graduate.” the young man replied indignantly. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know that,” said the manager. “Here, give me the broom, I’ll show you how.”

In this case, the tool is a broom, a tool whose use is not taught in the university.

Organizational technical skills can become obsolete As anyone who is in electronics can attest, their knowledge has a limited shelf life. Also, not all technical skills are equally in demand. One of the prime mistakes high school grads and college students make is not understanding the value society places on different technical skills. Some appreciate in value (programmers), while others are in decline (telephone operators and secretaries).

The Importance of Organizational Technical Skills

Most people get their first job based on technical skills (unless one happens to be the daughter of the owner, but that is another story). These jobs include traditional jobs such as software programmer, engineer, hairdresser, and machinist; to more exotic ones such as web master, systems integrator, and beauty consultant. In fact, the U.S. Labor Department’s Dictionary of Occupational Job Titles contains thousands of jobs requiring technical skills.

Also as someone climbs the organizational ladder, technical skills become less important relative to conceptual or human relations ones. For example, executives rarely solve technical problems; but they do need to understand the application and nature of technology. This means that good managers can run IT departments without having an information technology degree. 

The Technical Skills Trap

Staying Too Technical.

Too many individuals never develop any organizational skill-sets beyond their technical ones. Some accountants only know how to navigate a balance sheet and income statement. Lawyers who never evolve outside the law to grasp business models. Janitors who never learn much beyond how to keep things clean.


Another trap is specialization. The more specialized you become, the smaller the job pool. It’s great that one is an expert in reliability engineering, but how many jobs are there that require this expertise? A related problem is that specialization traps you in a specific industry. And once you are in an industry for more than ten years, it’s difficult to get out. 

But if you grow beyond your technical skills, many paths to the top of the organizational pyramid open up as the following story relates:

“The industrial managers where accustomed to lawyers who seemed almost eager to squelch their bright ideas. But in Shapiro they found a lawyer with a positive attitude, one who would no simply tell them “no” but would suggest an alternative. Irving Shapiro, it seemed, was more than just a lawyer–he had a talent for business. The word spread, and executives form all over the company started flocking to his office. “People stated coming around saying that they had a legal problem,” he remarks, “but what they really had was a business problem.” — Arthur Louis, (1981). page 29

Shapiro has moved out of his technical, legal skills to become a conceptual thinker. This helped him immensely on the path to C-suite.

Conceptual Skills

Alexander The Great Founding Alexandria
Alexander The Great Founding Alexandria

Katz defined conceptual skills as:

  • General analytical ability,
  • Logical thinking,
  • Proficiency in concept formation
  • Conceptualization of complex and ambiguous relationships,
  • Creativity in idea generation and problem solving,
  • Ability to analyze events and perceive trends,
  • Anticipate changes, and
  • Recognize opportunities and potential problems.”

These are mostly learned, but contrary to popular belief, they are not just learned in college under the label of “critical thinking.” A cynic might define critical thinking as the ability get to get an A by writing a scholarly paper no one except a professor will read. The key understanding here is that many conceptual skills are based on context; therefore, many must be learned on the job. 

When the quality movement begun to blossom in America during the 80s, one of the conceptual tools taught to employees was the Seven Tools of Quality. These were really very simple techniques such as flowcharting, control charts, cause and effect diagrams, and Pareto analysis. When used routinely throughout the organization, these basic conceptual tools allowed companies like GE, Motorola, Toyota, and Sony to develop a reputation for high quality that resulted in better profit margins.

Continually evolving this skill set prepares you for the challenge of C-level organizational jobs as the following story illustrates:

“Walter Wriston has an extremely alert, intellectually oriented mind’ and “an ability to see through quickly to the consequences of any action.” And one of Citbanks’s outside directors declared: “Wriston has a computer-analytical mind. He has more knowledge in detail than anybody I know. It’s very hard to argue with him because he always comes prepared to board meetings very well prepared., with all the information sorted out.” — Louis, Arthur (1981). page 70.

Human Relations Skill Sets

Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) The Virgin With Angels
Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) The Virgin With Angels

This key skill area is defined as:

  • Knowledge about human relations and interpersonal process,
  • The ability to understand feelings, attitudes and motives of others from what they say or do (empathy, social sensitivity),
  • Ability to communicate clearly and effectively (speech fluency, persuasiveness), and
  • Ability to establish effective and cooperative relationships (tact, diplomacy, knowledge about acceptable social behavior).

One would think that human relations skill sets would be high on everyone’s build list, but a fair amount of people neglect it completely. And most college degrees neglect it as well. Sad to say, but if you transition from being a technologist to a supervisor, it’s typically the lack of human relations skills that causes you to lose that position. 

In fact, some studies show that people don’t leave the job, they leave a bad boss. Barry (N.D.) in a study of 700 individuals found that:

  • Thirty-one percent of respondents reported that their supervisor gave them the “silent treatment” in the past year.
  • Thirty-seven percent reported that their supervisor failed to give credit when due.
  • Thirty-nine percent noted that their supervisor failed to keep promises.
  • Twenty-seven percent noted that their supervisor made negative comments about them to other employees or managers.
  • Twenty-four percent reported that their supervisor invaded their privacy.
  • Twenty-three percent indicated that their supervisor blames others to cover up mistakes or to minimize embarrassment.

Still, managers have a point when they complain the new hires don’t always make for good employees. 

A study by Leadership IQ (2005) called, “Why New Hires Fail found out that it’s a lack of human relations skills that commonly gets new hires fired. The major problems identified in this study include:

  • Lack of Coachability (26%): The ability to accept and implement feedback from bosses, colleagues, customers and others.
  • Low Emotional Intelligence (23%): The ability to understand and manage one’s own emotions, and accurately assess others’’ emotions.
  • Missing Motivation (17%): Sufficient drive to achieve one’s full potential and excel in the job.
  • Wrong Temperament (15%): Attitude and personality suited to the particular job and work environment.
  • Missing Technical Competence (11%): Functional or technical skills required to do the job.

One would hope that executives would possess stellar human relations skills. Many do, but a fair amount doesn’t. Between 1980 and 1993, Fortune Magazine ran a series of articles under the label of “America’s Toughest Bosses.” These CEOs were tolerated since they get bottom-line results, even as organizations suffer from the excessive turnover they typically produced. You often saw a persona affable toward outsiders; but by most accounts, an unholy terror when it came to dealing with subordinates. 

Skill Transferability


Human relations and conceptual skills typically transfer across companies in the same industry. In some cases, they transfer across industries. But many technical skills may not transfer. It depends largely on how widely a technology has spread within an industry, across industries, or internationally.

Which Organizational Skill Sets to Build?

It’s important to understand that the key skills that got you to your current position may not be the one that gets you to the next one. Technical skill sets are more important for low-level positions professional and entry-level positions. 

However, smarter firms are also looking for human relationship skills in new hires. After all, who wants an engineer or accountant that can’t communicate? 

While conceptual skill sets are always important, they become increasingly important as one moves up the organizational ladder. They are essential for board members, entrepreneurs, and c-level executives to name a few.


Katz has a model that is important to understand and apply. It’s a useful conceptual model that works for anyone who wants to work and serves as a good foundation for those getting started. But for those that wish to get to the top of the pyramid, the Core Five Assessment offers better insights into competencies to build.

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Barry, ND. Who is Afraid of the Big Bad Boss? Florida State University.

Dumaine, Brian (1993). America’s Toughest Bosses. Fortune Magazine. 

Healthfield, Susan (ND).Top Ten Reasons Why Employees Quit Their Job. Guide.

Katz, (1955). The Skills of an Effective  Administrator. Harvard Business Review.

Katz, Robert (1974). The Skills of the Effective Administrator.Harvard Business Review. 52:5, 90-102, Sep-Oct 74Boston, MA. This 3-Skill module is considered a classic. The 1974 article is an update of the one originally published in 1955.

LeadershipIQ (2005).Why New Hires Fail. Press Release, September 20

Prospects. What Do Employers Want? This site has more key skills than mentioned in this article.

Louis, Arthur (1981).The Tycoons. New York: Simon and Shuster page 29 and 70.

Work Skills For the 21st Century