Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Learned Vs. Learners - Revised

The 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” and what it implies when applied to the experts in our organizations is crucial in today’s environment of constant change.
I have recently been reading Building Expertise: Cognitive Methods for Training and Performance Improvement. This is a 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 is not a book review. I want to highlight a few concepts from the book that impact how we think of learning and expertise.
It is understood that an organization’s ability to innovate and creatively solve problems are its competitive edge in today’s economy. In troubled times and when faced with critical challenges, organizations have always leaned on the experts to step in and guide others, and take charge. In this post, I want to examine a few aspects of expertise and what that means for the workers of the 21st Century.
Can we always depend on the experts to provide the best solution?
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” in more diverse and unknown areas than we can predict now. However, building expertise is becoming a challenge—an almost insurmountable one in today’s rapidly changing work context. In the earlier days, expertise came from experience. Often, years of it; 10,000 hours of it. This experience was then made explicit and codified into best practices. The next generations of workers were 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? It is very likely that whatever can be put into a flowchart and turned into a process will be automated. And it’s already happening. The future is here but just not evenly distributed. However, while various parts of the world are going through this “futurization” at different speeds, it is happening. And it will eventually reach our part of the world too.
Human beings will be left to do work that is creative, purposeful and adds value to themselves and to the larger community. To do this, we will encounter challenges that we can't begin to comprehend. Where does the question of expertise as we know it come in? With everything changing at an unprecedented pace, there is no time to undergo the same experience repeatedly for the building of expertise. Exceptions have become the norm, and old rules don’t apply. In such context, it is worth noting the 7 aspects of expertise that Ruth Clark points out:
  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 Differencebut that is for another post)
I am going to focus on the last two - #6 and #7. My Aha! moment happened when I read about the concept of two intelligences. In the book, 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. The curse of the expert! 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. Adaptive expertise requires a curious mind—a valuable quality to survive today.
Fluid intelligence gives rise to adaptive expertise. We have reached a point in time where most of what we encounter – at a professional or at a personal level – will be very different from anything known before. We won’t have the comfort of drawing from past experiences. Our way forward and success will depend on how quickly and intelligently we mold ourselves.
Point #7 is about diverse expertise. Learners welcome diverse perspectives since it gives them an opportunity to deepen their own learning. Today’s challenges and work context span the globe as well as domains. Bringing singular perspectives and viewpoints to bear on such problems is not likely to yield results. Complex problems require diverse heuristics and frames of references to solve. Hence, diversity is going to be of paramount importance to organizations looking to survive and thrive. The basis of Crowdsourcing operate on the principle of bringing together diverse sets of individuals to provide their perspectives on a problem, topic or task. It is defined thus:
Crowdsourcing is distributed problem solving. By distributing tasks to a large group of people, you are able to mine collective intelligence, assess quality and process work in parallel.
Based on the philosophy of diverse expertise, Innocentive offers InnoCentive@Work -- a collaborative SaaS-based innovation management software -- that enables an org to engage diverse innovation communities such as employees, partners, or customers to rapidly generate novel ideas and solve your most pressing problems.
In summary, organizations have to inculcate adaptive expertise and bring in individuals with diverse cognitive abilities to deal with the evolving and unknown future. The biggest threat to the survival of organizations could be “this is the way we do things here” syndrome coupled with a pool of learned experts unwilling to change and adapt.

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