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10 facts the science of expertise tells us about designing entry level programmes

What makes the difference for the long term performance of an organisation? In the 21st century economy one of the most important differentiators is access to deep expertise.

In the knowledge economy expertise drives value and is the asset that a business is based on as it is their IP. This sometimes is in place of physical assets.

Sometimes this expertise is there to enable and optimise physical assets. Think of the clever algorithms that optimise a truck fleet or check a water network.

In this new world deep expertise, and access to that expertise, has become more important and will continue to.

The science of expertise

The good news is that the science of expert performance is well established. This research has been driven by Anders Ericisson, Robert Hoffman Gary Klein and their teams in Florida.

It makes sense to look at what we can learn from the science to help design our our talent processes. And how to apply to entry level schemes.

10 key things we can learn from the science

  1. Just doing something often, doesn't mean you improve. You don't gain expertise from experience alone.

  2. Focused practice is key to expertise. This needs motivation and detailed training regimens for key skills. Deliberate practice is the gold standard.

  3. To progress to expertise needs a well defined picture of what expert performance is. This includes knowledge and, more importantly, skills.

  4. Expertise is about building better mental representations. Better meaning more nuanced and more accurate. These allow more accurate perceptions of the context and of performance.

  5. Useful feedback on what works and what doesn't is critical. Not just to know what to change, but also for motivation

  6. Expertise takes a long time. It may not be the 10,000 hours or 10 years for concert pianists or ballerinas, but will take years not weeks.

  7. The different stages of progression need different teaching styles. From foundation skills, to guided practice to self feedback.

  8. There is no such thing as "general expertise", it is all specific

  9. Only at the margins are we constrained by genetics

  10. Starting young makes a difference in some areas

Insights for designing entry level schemes

The science shows that putting someone in a job on its own will not generate expertise. Just doing something repeatedly does not make you better. Over time it may actually get worse.

And what is the model that many entry schemes rely on? Put someone in a job and hope they develop. Hope the manager is a good teacher, hope they can identify what matters and how to teach it. Add some general support on high level skills and hope they stick.

From the science we can see this is not good.

Practice is the core tool to build expertise. Deliberate practice is the gold standard. Most work skills and starting contexts are not so amenable to this as

  • There is no clarity on what are the skills to learn. There are high level ideas like communications, analysis or leadership. But these need context and far more specificity to be a skill you can learn.

  • There are not expert teachers / managers with a well established training regimens

  • Work is often lacking intensity of experience and practice in specific skills

  • People do not get useful feedback on what good is and what it isn't

Does this mean we should give up? Or does this mean we need to put more effort into the design of starter roles to give them a chance to succeed?

If the business needs to be building sources of expertise then the answer has to be the latter. To start we should not be put off by the 10,000 hours or 10 years. This is based on getting to world expertise in a super competitive area. Prima ballerina, chessmaster or Premier league footballer..

If you work on a skill for 100 hours you will see a huge improvement. We are after the 100 hour boost to start with.

This creates a new question. What specific skills are we asking our new starters to spend 100 hours of focused practice on? These skills need to be defined, broken down and supported with training routines.

We need to understand the way-points that show people that their effort is working. In other words what does progression look like so we can give meaningful feedback.

The science also says focused practice is hard work. It is not fun. We need our new people to have the motivation to continue when progress is hard or become a dull.

This means they need to see the prize at the end that makes it worth doing the work. They need the teachers to give them meaningful feedback. They also need to be interested, so it helps that they are recruited with a specific role in mind.

Most workplaces are based around doing stuff, not practice. Intensity of work then becomes key. Someone working intensely 40 hours per week is going to learn much faster than someone doing 20 hours per week filling time.

It is even better if the work activity is coherent. It gives the opportunity to see the outcome. It includes similar activities of increasing challenge and it allows meaningful feedback.

Is this too much to hope for?

It doesn't have to be. A good example is starting out as a strategy consultant or M&A banker where a big part of the job is creating Powerpoint decks. Starters get to build 10's if not 100's of decks in their first year. Each of them is reviewed by their team and they get feedback, sometimes brutal. They see how the client reacts. They work on more important parts of the story as they gain experience. They work with different "experts" on different projects who highlight different things.

At the end of a year they become competent at creating high quality decks. These decks show the rigour of their problem solving and how to communicate a story. They will have a banker or consultant style. But they will have a skill. A context specific skill and one that is highly valued.

The sales trainee making 100s of calls. The nurse working with 100s of patients. The developer creating 100s of commits. These are examples where the natural rhythm of the work provides the frame for an experience akin to deliberate practice.

Where this doesn't happen naturally, the implication is that an entry level programme design needs to compensate.

Another insight from the science is that people are made not born for expertise. The genetics story says that we all have the ability to do most things with 3 caveats. Firstly in elite sports physical shape and size make a difference. Secondly some things you need to start early in life. Thirdly there may be a threshold of IQ for some specific tasks.

But for most jobs these caveats do not apply. The learning experience someone has is far more important for them building expertise than their IQ or personality.

So does this mean that starting young does not matter.

Probably yes in the sense that for most organisational roles you don't need to have been a childhood prodigy. But no in the sense that real expertise does take years to build and time not spent building it is time wasted.

Points of action

  • Identify where you need roles with deep expertise as a value generating differentiator.

  • Identify how you will recognise progression towards expertise. Use real data from starters to understand the time scales.

  • Define the learning journey and make sure there is enough intensity of experience and focus at the start. This creates the conditions for "work as practice".

  • Teach the managers how to teach and give them tools to help.

  • Phase the learning style to match the expertise levels.

  • Hire people who are interested in the area you need them in. As it takes 10 years to get to real expertise, it does matter to start young

Is this relevant for everyone?

We would say yes.

At one end of the scale, there are the roles where deep technical expertise matter. We believe that the list of these roles long and growing in importance for organisational value. These are hard skill roles. Software developers, research scientists, e commerce, consumer insights, advertising, procurement, engineers, maintenance engineers, pilots, chefs and on.

Then their are the softer skill roles around leadership. In these roles depth of expertise also matters though the skills are harder to define. We need our leaders to be true experts in the practice of leadership. This is where the 10 years/10,000 hours comes back into play. Running a FTSE 100 or Fortune 500 is similar in rareness to being a Premier league footballer, or a top musician. We need to support our leaders get that practice.

Then there are the more general roles where complexity is growing. Even though true expertise is not critical, accelerating people to be competent is.

In a "sociotechnial" world, where jobs are ever changing, getting to be competent is harder. Staying competent is harder still.

So even if you don't need hard skill experts, we believe the same thinking and methods help to accelerate everyone to competence.

A note on the evidence base

Expertise studies often use very narrow defined skills as their basis. London cabbies, musicians, chess players or sports players. The narrowness of these skills raises the question of relevance in the real world of work. In work, expertise is always broader.

The good news is that when you dig deeper we are seeing more general applications. These are in areas including weather forecasting, the military, medicine and software. The stories may be narrow but the evidence base is wider.

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