We know well-designed practice is a critical for effective training. It’s what differentiates meaningful learning from passive information. But as work becomes more complex and knowledge-based, are the practice activities we design for our training programs (classroom and digital) enough to meet the need for expertise in the modern workplace? A comprehensive body of research on how professional expertise is developed suggests it might not be.
The research, led largely by Anders Ericsson at Florida State University and popularized in books such as Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers and Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, indicates that the type of practice needed to develop true expertise is more intensive and “deliberate” than we thought, and that it must be embedded in the context of real work. Also, it must occur on a regular basis over much longer periods of time.
The research has implications Learning and Performance professionals. It argues for a shift away from event based traditional learning to learning from experience. Even then, not all experience is created equal when developing expertise, so simplistic notions of informal learning also won’t work. How should we rethink the design of practice if it is to truly develop the complex skills of the knowledge workplace? To answer that question it helps to first understanding what expertise looks like.
Characteristics of expert performance
Ericsson’s research found that top performing people at work consistently demonstrate the following differences compared to novices and lower performing individuals
- They perceive more. Experts see patterns, make finer discriminations, interpret situations more quickly and as a result make faster, more accurate decisions. Novices slowly review all information and don’t have the contextual experience to recognize patterns.
- They know more. Not only do experts have more facts and details available to them, they have more tacit knowledge–that all-important unconscious “know how” that only comes with experience. Novices rely on limited explicit knowledge.
- They have superior mental models. Experience helps experts have rich internal representations of how things work and how knowledge is connected. They use this to learn and understand situations more rapidly. Novices rely on simple, sometimes inaccurate, rules of thumb and loosely connected knowledge.
- They use personal networks more effectively. Experts know who to go to for help and answers. Novices are not able to identify information and people as quickly.
- They have superior “meta-cognition”. Experts are better self-monitors than novices. They set goals, self evaluate against a standard, and make corrections and adjustments more quickly from feedback.
These are skills we want in all employees. At times they seem like they come from an innate ability or deep “competency” unachievable by others. While natural ability plays a role, the research shows practice and experience are far more significant. The nature of this experience is critical. “Practice makes perfect” is only true for practice of a certain type which I describe in part 2.