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.
“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.
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.
Follows simple directions
Performs using memory of facts and simple rules
Makes simple judgmentsfor typical tasksMay need help withcomplex or unusual tasksMay lack speed andflexibility
Performance guided by deeper experience Able to figure out the most critical aspects of a situation Sees nuances missed by less-skilled performers Flexible performance
Performance 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
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.
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
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.
Critical know-how and “know-what”
Managerial, technical, or both; superior, experience-based techniques and processes; extraordinary factual knowledge
Swift recognition of a phenomenon, situation, or process that has been encountered before
Building and maintaining an extensive network of professionally important individuals
Ability to deal with individuals, including motivating and leading them; comfort with intellectual disagreement
Ability to construct, tailor, and deliver messages through one or more media to build logical and persuasive arguments
Diagnosis and cue seeking
Ability to actively identify cues in a situation that would confirm or challenge a familiar pattern; ability to distinguish signal from noise
Ability 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?