Business Acumen vs. Business Skills


In a span of a couple of days I have heard the term “acumen” used in comparison with the termbusiness-acumen-vs-skills “skills” numerous times. The first instance was during a recent NFL football game when one of the announcers declared that Tom Brady's does not have the skills he once had, but his “football acumen” remains intact and that is what is keeping the Patriots in the game. The second instance was in the context of business leadership.  I was speaking with the leader of a business who was talking about how they missed their quarterly revenue target because their manufacturing team wasn’t able to produce and deliver all of the units the sales team had sold and this really impacted the business.  “Our Manufacturing team can compete with anyone in the world. They have the skills, but they don’t have the leadership and business acumen to align, motivate, and coach to winning performance.  It’s the difference between being good, and being great.”

The term acumen is defined by the Free Dictionary and Oxford Dictionary as “Quickness, accuracy, and keenness of judgment or insight.” The term “skills” is defined by the Webster dictionary as “the ability to do something that comes from training courses, experience, data, or practice.” These definitions are similar, but one implies that acumen is almost an innate gift that cannot be learned, while skills, if practiced enough can be developed. On a daily basis, I track both the terms “business acumen” and “business skills” on Google alerts and other social sharing tools and almost every time there is a press release about a new CEO, executive, and leader they are lauded for their business acumen, not their business skills. I almost never receive an alert for business skills.

Let’s take the comparison between acumen and skills back to the corporate world focusing on the training and development function. Can we, as learning professionals, develop acumen or do we just have to focus on the skill development and assume that growing acumen is left to the individual to either develop or something they just inherently have? Is acumen, whether business acumen, financial acumen, sales acumen, or leadership acumen, something that can be developed? Having and developing skills is crucial to success today and something corporations spend billions to develop. But it seems like much of the focus of corporate training and development is dedicated to the development of skills and competencies, but not much is really concentrated on acumen. For learners to take that next step, we need to start to focus on the strengthening the acumen of our employees.

Based on our research and observations, we believe that skills and acumen can be developed by participating in simulations.  In training and development and education in general, we develop learning paths or learning journeys that present information in the class room, via eLearning, video, text book, etc. to develop specific skill sets. Some learning paths will include pre- and post-work, reinforcement and assessment. We use role plays and exercises and other methods that definitely build skills. But how many of these learning paths, truly immerse learners in an environment where they can develop and apply that acumen – the quickness, accuracy, and keenness of judgment or insight.

How Do Simulations Build Acumen?

There has been a significant amount of research from higher education on the effectiveness of simulations. Many fields such as healthcare, armed services, and aviation, all develop extensive simulations to build acumen in their respective fields. Corporate learning, surprisingly, has still not embraced simulations as a primary tool to build acumen or even skills. A training industry report indicated that only 20% of the providers of corporate learning are using, or plan to use simulation as tool for learning.  I often hear that the costs of simulations are the main hurdle to overcome preventing the implementation of simulations. People would love to use simulations, but they are “just too cost prohibitive” in the corporate market. With the growth of technology and learning development platforms, this should not be a factor nor should it be a common objection anymore.

At Advantexe, we utilize two simulation development platforms; one for scenario-based simulations and the other for the more quantitative type simulations.  These platforms allow us to cost effectively develop business simulations across a myriad of disciplines, functions, and content areas.

Business simulations provide the opportunity for users to quickly and efficiently develop business acumen. They place participants in situations where they are exposed to the experience of real world situations and are able to build awareness and confidence because they are given the benefit of making actual business decisions, analyzing problems in a structured fashion, and developing the insights to work their way out of situations of uncertainty and ambiguity.

A good business simulation provides learners with:

  • Relevancy – a simulated environment that mirrors their company culture, challenges, social impact, and business ecosystem.
  • Realism – an opportunity to make decisions and interact with characters similar to who they deal with back on the job.
  • Speed – decisions that have to be made in real time and under pressure.
  • Systemic View – users have many different choices to make regarding strategic direction and execution and one decision often effects the outcomes of another one.
  • Responsiveness - provides real time and programmatic feedback about behavior and results based on decision-making and the objective assessment of their performance.

As organizations look to develop talent and manage to the changes in workforce, it is no longer enough to just develop the skill sets needed to do a job well. Organizations also need to provide the tools, environment, and experience to build the comprehensive and complete acumen that will execute the company strategy and drive the performance. To compete in the global environment, employees must react quickly and have the insight about your company, products/service, your customers, and overall business ecosystem in which you play. 



Jim Brodo

About The Author

Jim is an award winning marketing executive with a proven background in driving pipeline value and revenue creation