Practice and the Development of Expertise (Part 3)


Image courtesy HRVoice

This is a variation of an article I prepared for CSTD and HRVoice, summarizing research on practice and expertise.  Part 1 introduced the signature skills demonstrated by experts that separate them from novices. Part 2 presented the type of practice that develops experts.  This post gets to the implications I see for Learning and Development and makes the connection to existing approaches that embody the principles of deliberate practice.

It would be easy to position deliberate practice in the formal learning camp. Indeed for some physical and routine skills  elements of deliberate practice can be build into formal training programs until a learner reaches mastery.  However, in the modern workplace jobs are more complex and demand greater cognitive (versus physical) skill.  The research findings challenges us to consider how we can better support the full novice to expert journey, embed learning and practice in the job, design experience to include practice and reflection, build tacit knowledge, and design rich feedback. In a past post I listed some general principles for using deliberate practice in learning

Fortunately we have a number of approaches available to us that align well to the conditions of deliberate practice. Most of these approaches are not training in the traditional sense. They do however have a structure to them and require significant support. Consider them more non-formal learning than pure informal learning.  Here are some well defined but under-used learning methods  that match well to deliberate practice.

  • Action Learning. Small teams create a plan of action to solve a real business problem. Impacts of these actions are observed, analyzed, lessons extracted and new actions prepared. This cycle of plan, act, observe, reflect embodies the key elements for deliberate practice. The approach has a significant and growing following. Used frequently for management development, it would be great to see it expanded to other types of professional work. See this  earlier post on action learning. 
  • Cognitive Apprenticeship. The standard apprenticeship model updated for modern knowledge work. Instead of demonstrating a manual skill, experts model and describe their thinking to “apprentices” who then work on the same problem while they articulate and verbalize their own reasoning. The expert provides coaching and feedback to encourage reflection. Support is “scaffolded”–gradually released as skills build and confidence is gained.
  • Communities of Practice. Groups with common professional or project goals work together sharing and discussing best practices. In doing so they develop rich tacit knowledge and the hidden “how to’s” that are often missed in formal learning programs. New knowledge is created in the process of collaborating with others. Social media environments can provide a home for the conversations and knowledge that is created.
  • Simulation and Games. Great simulations are a surrogate for real experience and incorporate authentic  work tasks. This allows the learner to attempt challenging tasks, experience failure and learn from errors–all critical elements of deliberate practice.  I like games that model real work and allow for fun, repeatable practice, but worry about “gamification” that uses game mechanics to motivate employees to use the same old ineffective training.
  • Feedback in the Workflow. Wonderful natural feedback exists in the form of business results and performance data. We don’t tend to think of it as a learning tool, but in the context of deliberate practice, it is one of the most powerful. It requires connecting the data to individual or team behavior. It is the cornerstone of approaches to team learning found in improvement methods like Lean, Six Sigma and performance technology. Here’s a post with some ideas on implementing a learning feedback system
  • Stretch Assignments with Coaching. One of the most powerful approaches to “practice” is challenging work assignments that push current capabilities. Already a staple of executive development, we need to see much more of it for other types of professional development.
  • Open Practice Centers. Instead of tired corporate universities and course catalogs populated with learning programs, Practice Centres could provide progressively challenging practice, simulations and work assignments matched to key job roles. Individualized practice is designed to support the full novice to expert journey using the principles of deliberate practice. Learning “content” is considered only in a support role to accomplish practice goals. Heres an idea for organizing the learning function around practice instead of content and courses. And the core idea applied to Management Development

These approaches and others like them occupy that fuzzy middle ground between informal and formal learning. Each can be aided significantly by social media/social learning and learning technologies. Most importantly however they are approaches that allow us to apply the research on “deliberate practice” to help improve our organizations and in doing so improve our own professional performance.

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7 thoughts on “Practice and the Development of Expertise (Part 3)

  1. The three-part blog post series, Practice and the Development of Expertise, is a much needed in-depth discussion of deliberate practice for the development of high performing employees. Totally on the mark were the research-based descriptions of the skills demonstrated by these employees, the types of practice needed to develop that expertise, and a new practice design including non-formal learning approaches for developing the complex skills of the knowledge workplace. Thank you!

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