ISPI publishes a weekly digest of news and information for performance improvement consultants.  Last week they published their top stories for 2011.  Over the next few days I will feature my thoughts on those I feel are particularly noteworthy.
Click here for my first entry.

One of the ironies of being an expert is that you often lose touch with what it is like to be a novice.

In October Harvard Business Review posted an article titled “The Best Approach to Training.”  With a title like that its bound to get a lot of hits.   While the article has value, its title is a little misleading.  Rather than focus on the latter I will focus on its virtues.
NOTE: I quote liberally from this article.  I am not trying to take credit for the author’s work.  Sometimes it is difficult to maintain a flow and quote the author fully.  This is more obvious in some places that others.

The setup: “Experts often are unable to articulate the many “obvious” (to them) things they do when carrying out a procedure or solving a problem.”  When tasked with training a new employee an expert tends to gloss over important information or steps because it has become second nature to them.  This actually makes the “trainee” more dependent on the expert/trainer, the exact opposite of what they set out to do.   As a result, the organization is not getting maximum productivity of either employee.

The diagnosis: According to the author, the common approach is to adopt an academically developed and tested technique to improve training and instruction that likely involves a resource-intensive task analysis.  This makes sense if you are documenting the minimum qualifications for a job, establishing performance criteria, and creating a training program. However, if you are simply training a new employee I believe you can accomplish more by getting him or her into the flow of the organization first.  After a short period of assimilation you can shift focus to mastering the individual tasks of their job.

The solution: “The best way to identify what experts do is to have them solve the problems or carry out the tasks in question and to require the expert to justify the steps he is taking as he takes them.”  This approach takes a macro-level view and enables the expert to consider the work holistically.  As a result, the resulting training bears a greater resemblance to the reality of day-to-day responsibilities.

An example:  The author asked experienced college physics instructors to create a set of problems — representing a part of the course — that a student in introductory physics should be able to solve if he or she “understood” that part of the course.

He then asked them to solve the problems and narrate their steps.  While they were talking he was “furiously” capturing their thoughts. In his words, “the instructors [often] had to stop and scratch their heads as they tried to provide a justification for their steps. The justifications in this case were rooted in laws of physics, but the relevant features or implications of the laws were things that the instructors had internalized or automated and they struggled to make them explicit to me.

The resulting solutions were of course quite lengthy and verbose, but they ultimately provide the raw material for guiding the construction of better worked examples and lecture materials for learners. I use the notes to then solve new problems with the expert available to help me when I don’t know what to do. Each time I reach an “impasse” I revise the notes. Ultimately, I reach a point where I can solve all problems the expert gives me.”

My thoughts: I have used this method and found it to be useful.  In fact, my most successful projects occur when I can think like the expert.  No one will confuse me for being an expert, but going through this process enables me to apply my skills to the subject matter and create relevant learning opportunities.  The challenge is coming up with the problems in a work setting.  In the end I don’t think this is approach is less cumbersome or resource intensive but the outcome is better.

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