Monday, April 4, 2016

Expertise: Why The Odds are Stacked Against Novices - Tip #93

A Harvard Business Review article “What’s Lost When Experts Retire” reminded me about the dire need to rethink our roles as learning professionals and leaders:

My sense is that our current of definitions and understanding of expertise may be at odds and stacked against helping novices to become experts.  These are some ideas I have pondered on. I continue to plow the literature on expertise and find it most exhilarating and inspiring.

Gladwell’s 10,000 Hours to be an Expert - No Short Cuts

In Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell writes that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery. His study reported cases on how mastery requires practice and dedication. Furthermore, Gladwell discovered that no “naturally gifted” performers emerged as experts. So there are no short cuts. 

I subscribe to Gladwell’s conclusions that mastery requires thousands of hours. However, this outlook is the far-end spectrum of what expertise is. If we look at expertise as an final end result of capability and mastery, then we may be stuck. Experts are rare and hard to find and expensive to recruit and retain in organizations.

How Developers Stop Learning: Rise of the Expert Beginner

Erik Dietrich, a software architect has studied programmers and he observed the phenomenon of the “Beginner-Expert.” In How Developers Stop Learning: Rise of the Expert Beginner software developers are in high demand and the rapid phase of movement in organizations creates the new type of “Beginner-Expert.” These are perceived experts in very narrow skill areas who appear to have earned the reputation of being “experts.”  However, they have only been a few years on the job and have not advanced in their proficiency levels, yet, have entrenched themselves in silos of expertise areas. Dietrich believes this presents a problem because it leads to some form of incompetence, referred to in Dreyfus model of skill acquisition.  I shall continue to digest Dietrich’s observations and reports.

What is interesting to me is to review Dreyfus’ model of skill acquisition. The model is a stage or linear growth model of competency. The novice is “rule-based” and “have no exercise of discretionary judgement” while the expert “transcends reliance on rules and guidelines.”

    The Dreyfus Model

The Dreyfus model is a good foundational model. It is a static way to capture competency. When compared to today’s rapid phase of change and technologically abundant environments, the model could lead to a restrictive understanding  about how we can leverage the knowledge of novices, advanced beginners and those who may not be experts, as defined by Dreyfus. My view is that there must be a way for organizations to further cultivate and maximize the knowledge of novices and experts alike. 
See more.

Periodic Table of Expertise

Harry Collins and Rob Evans from Cardiff University espouse “Interactional Expertise.”

Collins and Evans’ “Periodic Table of Expertise”
Essentially, as an oversimplified explanation, the Periodic Table of Expertise shows:

  • Dispositions - expertise comes from constant self-reflection and assessments of one’s
     scientific findings and discoveries. Experts persistently subject their thinking to 
     those of others, hence, the need for interaction with other experts and further
     scientific discoveries.

  • Ubiquitous Tacit Knowledge - is expertise knowledge derived from simplified 
     understanding, narrow meanings and access to the primary source of the knowledge.

  • Specialist Tacit Knowledge - is expertise that is developed through rigor and depth of
    understanding of scientific findings with the capacity to present contradictions and
    limitations of expert knowledge.

  • Meta-Expertises - suggest the different roles of experts

  • Meta-Criteria - suggests the ways expertise is developed and qualified

The model suggests that the value of expertise may occur at different levels depending on one’s current competencies. It allows a far broader consideration of the different values of knowledge and contributions. What drew my attention is the idea that different ways people developed expertise is a product of how much they contribute and interact with others and allow modifications and refinements of individual expertise. Critically, it requires that we must always know the limits and contradictions of our own expertise and the ability to clearly articulate these limits.

I understand this to mean, that we all have some level of expertise knowledge. However, we have to constantly test it and subject it to other unknowns.  In so doing, the value of our contributions are applied by others with the accompanying unknowns.

A good illustration would be this. Many bloggers or reporters of knowledge oversimplify, underestimate and only represent one side of a viewpoint or a scientific finding. They fail to inform their audience about the limits and unknowns.

Collins and Evans propose this in their book:

Expertise Based on “What We Know and Can Do Now” - a Contributions Approach

I propose that expertise is not a destination, but rather a momentary state of our value and ability to contribute. By keeping this thought, we may have an opportunity to train and assist learners and workers to look into their current competencies and knowledge while reflecting  on how they may add further value. We can also call this the Contributor-Expert” or “Inverted Expertise Model.” What is paramount is that we as learners  must constantly subject our knowledge to the unknowns and limitations so the recipients of such knowledge may be aware of both the value and the limitations. I will continue to study, reflect and report to you my progress. Until then, let me know what you think.

A contributions approach has many advantages and will likely reinforce what efforts we invest in training and learning.

These are a few of the ideas to consider.

  • Learners can think of themselves as immediate contributors and add value
  • Opportunities allow them to have self confidence
  • They think about immediate applications of what they know because they are
     expected to contribute
  • Learning is accelerated because they practice, show, preach and share what they know
  • Learners must subject their knowledge to limits and unknowns.


What’s Lost When Experts Retire”, Dorothy Leonard, Walter Swap.Gavin Barton-Harvard Business Review (December 02, 2014)

Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell (June 7, 2011)

How Developers Stop Learning: Rise of the Expert Beginner, Erik Dietrich ( 2013)

Periodic Table of Expertises
 Harry Collins and Robert Evans (March 6,2013)

Dreyfus Model for Skill Acquisition

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
"Helping Learners Learn Their Way"

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