Everyday Experience is Not Enough

A core tenet of informal and social learning is that we learn through experience. It’s the elephant in the 70-20-10 room. It’s often used as an admonishment to formal learning. Advocates of the most laissez-faire approaches informal learning suggest that given the right tools (social anyone?) employees will do just fine without all the interference by the learning department, thank you very much.

No one in their right mind would argue that experience is not a powerful teacher, or that our most valuable learning occurs while working. But it’s pretty broad generalization don’t you think? Some experiences must be more valuable than others for achieving learning and performance goals. And if so, what makes those experiences more valuable and how do we know them when we see them? Or, from the perspective of the learning professional, how can we help create the right experiences to help people develop their skills? These seem to be important questions if we are to get beyond loose approaches to informal learning.

Indeed research in developing expertise has shown that not all experience is created equal. Years of experience in a domain does not invariably lead to expert levels of performance. Most people after initial training and a few years of work reach a stable, acceptable level of performance and maintain this level for much of the rest of their careers. Contrast that with those that continue to improve and eventually achieve the highest levels of expertise. It seems that where high performers may have 20 years experience , average performers seem to have 1 year of experience 20 times!

The following chart from the body of research on developing expertise, illustrates the results of different types of “experience” on workplace performance.

Ericsson K.A., "The Influence of Experience and Deliberate Practice on the Development of Expert Performance” The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance (2006)

Average performers learn just enough from their environment (experience) to perform everyday skills with a minimal amount of effort. In contrast, experts continually challenge their current performance and seek feedback from their environment to stay in a more or less permanent learning state, mastering everyday skills but continuously raising their personal bar. This deliberate approach to learning from experience is what separates top performers from the norm. Continuously challenging current skills is hard work and it takes it’s toll. Some decrease or stop their focus on deliberate practice and never achieve the excellence of the expert (arrested development).

Designing experience

So, performance does not improve simply through cumulative everyday experience gained face to face, using social media or otherwise. It requires targeted effortful practice an environment rich in accurate and timely feedback. That does not mean formal training.  It does means experience designed and targeted to develop skills and expertise. This is a very different thing than routine, everyday work experience.

Some of the best learning approaches that work well in helping people challenge their current skill levels fall into that fuzzy middle ground between formal and informal learning (see this post for a continuum of learning experiences) and can include the following:

Designing, fostering and supporting work experiences that develop expertise is an emerging role for the learning professional. That role is to assure that people are working in a setting where they can challenge and develop their knowledge and skills. You can’t make them learn but you can help surround them with the resources they need to learn. This approach to learning is truly a partnership between the individual, their managers and you as a learning professional. In doing that work you are practicing and developing your own expertise.

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10 thoughts on “Everyday Experience is Not Enough

  1. Thanks, Tom – a very insightful post. Your last two sentences say it all:

    “This approach to learning is truly a partnership between the individual, their managers and you as a learning professional. In doing that work you are practicing and developing your own expertise.”

    And getting managers on-board is the most important step. Research by the Corporate Leadership Council indicates that those managers who understand and are effective at creating challenging development opportunities for their reports achieve around a 25% performance uplift against their peers who are ineffective at developing their people.

    That’s an extra day’s productivity from everyone every week with no additional cost or effort.

    If anything’s a win-win, that is ……..

    • Thanks Charles. CLC research is tough to get your hands on unless you’re a member. I’ll see if i can dig it up. I believe that number. Maybe we’re just coming around to putting the “development” back in “Training and Development” (oops, I mean Learning and Development :))

  2. I think there’s an organizational component in the mix too. The organization creates a culture in which improvement (defined very broadly) is embedded in work-flow processes for example. Engendering a culture of learning should be a priority I think.

  3. Tom, who are these “Advocates of the most laissez-faire approaches informal learning” who deny the 10 of 70:20:10? Pundits who put down informal learning as claptrap rail against them, but I haven’t run across anyone who suggests denying the need for some formality. I think it’s a straw-man argument.

    Learning is always part formal — common language, shared context, fundamentals — and part informal — social, learning outside the classroom. The challenge is choosing among shades of gray.

    I think we’re on the same page on this.

    • Hi Jay, My point is not that people deny the 10 in 70-20-10, but that they (we) can overgeneralize the value of the 70. The research I’m tracking suggests that not all “experience” is of equal value in developing expertise. Experience that allows an individual to recognize what excellent performance looks like, strive for it incrementally over time and receive valued feedback on their performance (deliberate practice) are the conditions that produce meaningful learning. Informal environments and tools that facilitate this (and there are many) are wonderful. Those that do not provide support for informal practice and feedback are less useful. I don’t think of that as a straw man argument, but one that brings some refinement to the broad generalizations of some approaches to informal and social learning. Tom

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