Saturday, December 25, 2010

Learned vs. Learners

I have been deviating from the key themes of this blog, i.e., learning, performance, training and collaboration, for some time now. However, the deviations have been topics that moved me deeply, and I did not want to write about them in a separate blog. They are as much a part of me as all things learning. In the future too, I see this blog being intermittently peppered with posts unrelated to organizational learning but delineating experiences that are of personal import.
With today’s post, I am back on the theme of learning and its impact on performance—personal and organizational.
In times of change, learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. -- Eric Hoffer
This classic quotation summarizes in a sentence what takes scholars and academicians reams of paper to theorize and prove. And this is the trigger for today’s post. The difference between the terms “learners” and “learned” is crucial in today’s environment of constant change, and this is my topic for today.
I have recently been reading Building Expertise: Cognitive Methods for Training and Performance Improvement at a colleague’s recommendation. This is one of those must read books for trainers/learning and development professionals/anyone interested in the phenomenon called learning.
Building Expertise deals with learning and training as it needs to be. However, before I ramble on, I want to clarify that this post is not a book review. I want to highlight a few concepts from the book that impact how we think of learning, training and performance.
It is now common knowledge that an organization’s ability to innovate is its competitive edge in today’s economy. Innovation itself is a term that requires some unpacking. For example, it could be used to mean blue ocean thinking or innovation by combining the already existing in an entirely novel, unforeseen manner. But I digress.
In this post, I want to examine a few aspects of expertise and what that means for the workers of the 21st Century.
According to Wikipedia (2007) “…an expert, more generally, is a person with extensive knowledge or ability in a particular area of study.” ~ Building Expertise, Ruth Clark
Today, we need experts and in more diverse areas than we even know. However, building expertise is becoming a challenge—an almost insurmountable one on occasions. In the earlier days, expertise came from experience. Often, years of it; 10,000 hours of it. This experience was then codified into best practices and the next generation of workers was trained to follow the best practices and get the desired results. Predictable, measurable, trainable! This worked wonderfully (when the world was stable and work was routine) till it didn’t anymore. We all know that we have reached a point where codified best practices have almost ceased to exist. Almost, because there are some routine tasks that still need to be done, but do human agents need to do those? More importantly, are those the kind of work that will provide us with the indispensable competitive edge? Maybe not. With everything changing at a pace never experienced before, there is no time to undergo the same experience repeatedly for the building of expertise around it. I am talking about knowledge work here. Not about playing the guitar or becoming a champion chess player. Those kinds of expertise will still need 10,000 hours of practice.

Ruth Clark, in the book, describes 7 lessons learned about experts:
1.       Expertise requires extensive practice
2.       Expertise is domain specific
3.       Expertise requires deliberate practice
4.       Experts see with different eyes
5.       Experts CAN get stuck
6.       Expertise grows from TWO intelligences
7.       Challenging problems require diverse expertise (this ties in with what Scott Page says in The Difference but that is for another post)

What most interested me are the last two. My Aha! moment happened when I read about the concept of two intelligences. While I have read about adaptability, understand its impact and importance in a world that is in a constant state of beta, I was not sure I could explain it to someone else with conviction and theoretical support.
She talks about routine expertise vs. adaptive expertise and crystallized vs. fluid intelligences
Quoting from the book below:
Routine experts are very effective at solving problems that are representative of problems in their domains. They are adept at “seeing” and solving the problem based on their domain-specific mental models.
In contrast, adaptive experts evolve their core competencies by venturing into areas that require them to function as “intelligent” novices.
Fluid intelligence is the basis for reasoning on novel tasks or within unfamiliar contexts; in other words, it gives rise to adaptive expertise. In contrast, crystallized intelligence is predicated on learned skills…and is the basis for routine expertise
Routine experts are the learned ones who have deep domain-specific knowledge; however, often this deep knowledge becomes a hindrance in viewing the world through fresh eyes. They tend to see everything through the lenses of their domain. Adaptive experts, on the other hand, are able to take on the role of inquiring novices when required and are thus able to view a problem from different perspectives. They are the learners.
However, it is also important to note that adaptive expertise is based on routine expertise. One cannot adapt to new situations and events unless one has deep domain-specific knowledge.

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