How can we develop adaptive expertise? The zigzag

Yesterday I said that adaptive expertise was key to a good customer experience and a key strength for helping BT adapt to the future. But if adaptive expertise is so important, how can we develop it – both for ourselves, and in quantity across the company?

The big realisation is that if we want to grow some adaptive experts, it doesn’t look like a traditional set of eLearning courses on Learning Home. So what does the research say is effective (and conversely, what hinders it)? (see Carbonell for example)

A connected zigzag. Daniel Schwartz, John Bransford, and David Sears explain that the path towards adaptive expertise is alternated between repetitive exercises in one domain, and new challenges that are somewhat related to the domain but don’t resemble the learned exercises. This mixture between doing the same thing several times, and being confronted with something seemingly unrelated puts learners in the optimal adaptivity corridor: They have gained enough experiences in one domain to not be completely frustrated when challenged with a new task. So what should we do first? Perhaps surprisingly the research suggests we should encourage people to discover solutions to problems without instruction first before building the routine knowledge. Although Sandra Viggers cautions that you might need a simulation environment for safety.

Reflective practice. New tasks push the learner to revisit the old tasks and wonder “Why have I done this?” It is through this questioning and reflection of work routines that learners develop a fine-grained conceptual map. This gives them the power to be adaptive.

Freedom to change things. Adaptive expertise requires that people learn how to experiment with their knowledge. This means that they should feel safe to change the methods and routines they learned early on. Such experiences will sharpen their innovation skills. But that doesn’t sit well in parts of the organisation that emphasise consistency and strict adherence to process.

Culture of learning rather than mere performance. Katerina Carbonell did a post-doc study of adaptive expertise in teams in 2016 and says A focus on ‘acing the test’ should be replaced by a thirst for being exposed to the unfamiliar, by replacing a culture focused on performance with a culture focused on learning.

Collaboration. It’s not an individual activity. Working with others and in the situations others face forces new viewpoints and more nuanced understanding. (see Wikipedia). The learning effect is particularly strong when collaborating with people (on their normal work, not a special learning activity) outside your normal team.

Team identity and professional identity in balance. Having a group identity beyond the immediate team leads to much better information exchange relationships. Individuals with high levels of adaptive expertise form and maintain more information exchange relationships (Carbonell). So in our company the professions and subject groups in the Academy are a vital counterpoint to the formal organisation structures.

So what might this mean in a corporate environment?

Adaptive expertise comes primarily from on-the-job learning (the 70% in the 70:20:10 model of how people learn). The changes that are needed are not much about courses and resources, and are a lot about things like this:

  • Give people the opportunity to do different things, not simply repeat the same thing over and over again. Job rotation, special projects, volunteering, covering annual leave could all have a role to play. In our learning design guide there are lots of practical ideas under the heading Stretch.
  • Build skills in reflective practice, then encouraging and giving time for it as part of normal work.
  • Allow questioning and experimentation with routines. We need more people to deviate from the routine (though not all the time), in order to explore from experience why the original routine is good and develop the adaptive expertise to respond to novel situations rather than always following the script. That is quite counter-intuitive, because it will introduce some inefficiency into the system in order to get a bigger gain (adaptive expertise). I notice we already encourage “continuous improvement” which creates a good mindset.
  • Reduce the emphasis on performance numbers. This is also counter-intuitive to some. Once we decide to measure something it assumes that that thing that can be measured is a good approximation to excellence and that all that is needed is to improve that number. That produces short-cutting behaviour that avoids (or bounces) unfamiliar things that might take longer or not have guaranteed positive outcomes in terms of the performance numbers. In fact it needs to be a positive thing for people to gain experience in the more difficult things, particularly when it comes to improving the customer experience.
  • We should increase opportunities for collaboration outside the home team, for example in independent reviews or peer assists. Here are four fantastic examples of Peer Assists Nancy Dixon just published a few weeks ago from BP, Mars, EU police crowd safety and USAID.
  • Step up the contribution to professions and subject groups. For adaptive expertise to develop, we need people to have a dual identity – to play an active part in their team AND in “team-BT” helping people outside their normal line of work. The biggest opportunities for this are through the professions and subject groups in the Academy. But lots of people say their pressure of work is too intense for them to contribute properly.

What do you think? How can we increase adaptive expertise? Is it even possible to organise?


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