Process and procedure complexity

People are at the heart of any organization. They set the organization’s goals, they manage it, they deal with suppliers and customers and they work together to produce results.

We manage this by processes. Process are on a continuum by how complicated and complex they are. Simpler jobs can be reliably done by following procedure. More complex ones require the ability to analyze a situation – using established rules – and decide which of several alternative paths to follow. In even more complex cases they analyze, diagnose, design, redesign, program, plan or schedule. In some cases, they create new products, processes and new ways of being. Very complex jobs require individuals who can analyze and solve very complex problems.

These complex, knowledge driven processes get difficult to provide as work-as-prescribed. The work involves thought and creativity, and finding the right balance is a continual balancing act of knowledge management.

Improvisation

Improvisation Takes Practice” in HBR is a great read. When I first read it, I chuckled at how it brings my gamer hobby and my quality practice together.

Employee creativity—the production of novel and useful solutions, procedures, products, and services—is critical to organizational success. I would argue, creativity drives excellence. Improvisation is a key employee behavior that drives creativity and innovation.

Improvisation is essential for navigating volatile, uncertain, and complex environments and dealing with unforeseen obstacles. Improvisation is also key to drawing distinctions, implementing new ideas, and converting knowledge and insights into action in real time. When confronted with critical and disruptive events, employees can resolve challenges by following existing protocols and procedures. In contrast, when faced with novel events, employees cannot rely on routines and conventions to respond. Rather, they will have to shift their focus to new perspectives, features, and behaviors.

The process of building expertise, when practices are assimilated, embodied, and rendered tacit, creates improvisational competence. Improvisation is an important source of action generating learning: people act to make events meaningful and situations understandable and, in the process, deepen their expertise through further learning, becoming reflective practitioners.

As part of knowledge management, today’s improvisations are absorbed and embedded into tomorrow’s routines.

Improvisation leads to better decision making, as I discussed in the post “Yes…but….and

Experts think differently

Research on expertise has identified the following differences between expert performers and beginners

  • Experts have larger and more integrative knowledge units, and their represen­tations of information are more functional and abstract than those of novices, whose knowledge base is more fragmentary. For example, a beginning piano player reads sheet music note by note, whereas a concert pianist is able to see the whole row or even several rows of music notation at the same time.
  • When solving problems, experts may spend more time on the initial prob­lem evaluation and planning than novices. This enables them to form a holistic and in-depth understanding of the task and usually to reach a solution more swiftly than beginners.
  • Basic functions related to tasks or the job are automated in experts, whereas beginners need to pay attention to these functions. For instance, in a driving Basic functions related to tasks or the job are automated in experts, whereas beginners need to pay attention to these functions. For instance, in a driving school, a young driver focuses his or her attention on controlling devices and pedals, while an experienced driver performs basic strokes automatically. For this reason, an expert driver can observe and anticipate traffic situations better than a beginning driver.
  • Experts outperform novices in their metacognitive and reflective thinking. In other words, they make sharp observations of their own ways of think­ing, acting, and working, especially in non-routine situations when auto­ mated activities are challenged. Beginners’ knowledge is mainly explicit and they are dependent on learned rules. In addition to explicit knowledge, experts have tacit or implicit knowledge that accumulates with experience. This kind of knowledge makes it possible to make fast decisions on the basis of what is often called intuition.
  • In situations where something has gone wrong or when experts face totally new problems but are not required to make fast decisions, they critically reflect on their actions. Unlike beginners, experienced professionals focus their thinking not only on details but rather on the totality consisting of the details.
  • Experts’ thinking is more holistic than the thinking of novices. It seems that the quality of thinking is associated with the quality and amount of knowledge. With a fragmentary knowledge base, a novice in any field may remain on lower levels of thinking: things are seen as black and white, without any nuances. In contrast, more experienced colleagues with a more organized and holistic know­ledge base can access more material for their thinking, and, thus, may begin to explore different perspectives on matters and develop more relativistic views concerning certain problems. At the highest levels of thinking, an individual is able to reconcile different perspectives, either by forming a synthesis or by inte­grating different approaches or views.
LevelPerformance
BeginnerFollows simple directions
NovicePerforms using memory of facts and simple rules
CompetentMakes simple judgmentsfor typical tasksMay need help withcomplex or unusual tasksMay lack speed andflexibility
ProficientPerformance guided by deeper experience Able to figure out the most critical aspects of a situation Sees nuances missed by less-skilled performers Flexible performance
ExpertPerformance guided by extensive practice and easily retrievable knowledge and skillsNotices nuances, connections, and patterns Intuitive understanding based on extensive practice Able to solve difficult problems, learn quickly, and find needed resources
Levels of Performance

Sources

  • Clark, R. 2003. Building Expertise: Cognitive Methods for Training and Performance Improvement, 2nd ed. Silver Spring, MD: International Society for Performance Improvement.
  • Ericsson, K.A. 2016. Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Kallio, E, ed. Development of Adult Thinking : Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Cognitive Development and Adult Learning. Taylor & Francis Group, 2020.

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The Subject Matter Expert

A subject matter expert (SME) is typically an expert on a division of a process, such as a specific tool, technology, or set of process steps. A process may have multiple subject matter experts associated with it, each with varying degrees of understanding of the over-arching process.

SMEs should have depth in their subject area. A great way to identify them is to look for individuals who have a proven track record as formal or informal mentors. To be effective, the SME must be approachable and able to show others the “how” and “why” behind their work. Building expertise, and thus building SMEs, is a fundamental part of a learning organization.

The archetype SMEs has the following attributes:

  • Are really, really smart and know more about their subjects than anybody else in your universe
  • Are willing, able, and looking forward to serving as experts
  • Can tell you what they know in a logical way
  • Understand why it is important for other people to know what they know
  • Are approachable and often fun to work with
  • Love to teach their subjects and make great presenters or facilitators
  • Stay current in their areas of expertise
  • Know when to refer you to someone else
  • Possess situational awareness
The Subject Matter Expert

Subject matter experts are a huge part of knowledge capture.

SME’s help drive Innovation through their strong knowledge of what-was and what-is in order to provide a solid foundation to comprehend what-could-be.

Building Experts

Subject matter experts have explicit knowledge from formal education and embedded in reports, manuals, websites, memos, and other corporate documents. But their implicit and tacit knowledge, based on their experience, is perhaps the source of their greatest value — whether the subject-matter expert with decades of experience who is lightning fast with a diagnosis and almost always spot-on or the manager whose team everyone wants to be on because she’s so good at motivating and mentoring.

Experts, no matter the domain, tend to have very similar attributes. Understanding these attributes allows us to start understanding how we build expertise.

DimensionExperts Demonstrate
Cognitive
Critical know-how and “know-what”Managerial, technical, or both; superior, experience-based techniques and processes; extraordinary factual knowledge
System thinkingKnowing interdependencies, anticipating consequences, understanding interactions
JudgementRapid, wise decision making
Context AwarenessAbility to take context into account
Pattern RecognitionSwift recognition of a phenomenon, situation, or process that has been encountered before
Behavioral
Networking (“Known-who”)Building and maintaining an extensive network of professionally important individuals
InterpersonalAbility to deal with individuals, including motivating and leading them; comfort with intellectual disagreement
CommunicationAbility to construct, tailor, and deliver messages through one or more media to build logical and persuasive arguments
Diagnosis and cue seekingAbility to actively identify cues in a situation that would confirm or challenge a familiar pattern; ability to distinguish signal from noise
Physical
SensoryAbility to diagnose, interpret, or predict through appropriate senses
Attributes of an Expert

One of the critical parts of being a subject matter expert is being able to help others absorb knowledge and gain wisdom through learn-by-doing techniques— guided practice, observation, problem solving, and experimentation.

Think of this as an apprenticeship program that provides deliberate practice with expert feedback, which is fundamental to the development of expertise.

Do your organizations have this sort of organized way to train an expert? How does it work?