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Expertise and Novelty: Taking action when facing the unknown

12 Jun

I have come to rely on and enjoy several regularly occurring Twitterstorms (or chats, or flurries – there are several terms I’ve seen applied). Last month I was particularly drawn to one of my favorite events, #lrnchat (“learn chat”), which centered on the idea of expertise. And, while I was unable to participate in real time–I was in Japan at the time–one of the beauties of the Twitterstorm is that it lives on for all to return to even if someone is unable to participate live. Indeed, it is one of the greatest things about our digital-social learning age that the lines between “live” events and persistent online conversation are blurred. It’s easy to find the transcript of the May 21, 2015, #lrnchat session, and there is nothing that prevents me from adding to it and responding to particular comments or questions long after the storm has passed.

The topic of expertise and authority relates to a post I wrote a few weeks ago in which I used chess as a paradigm for understanding and applying principles in novel situations. And I got to thinking: That is the essence of expertise.

An expert is not someone who is able to replicate (even) complex tasks as a result of practice and repetition. An expert is someone who can draw on what they’ve gained from practice and repetition as it applies to unexpected situations and complex problems that have either not been tackled before or that, through creative insight, are wholly new ideas to test.

So, what does expertise entail?

Right. As Harold Jarche, Jane Hart, and others have written recently, as we move to a workplace where machines perform most routine tasks, expertise will be the essential skill for tackling the remainder: complexity, novelty, inference, and creativity.

Which brings us back to chess (or poker, or tennis, or sailing, or just about any domain you can think of). What is an expert player? Expertise is not about mastering and executing complex moves. I can learn how to perform backward pawn structure or the double fork attack, but that won’t make me an expert. Expertise is knowing when to perform these tactics given the novelty of every chess situation. An expert is comfortable with experimentation and creativity, failure and success, experimentation and continuous learning. An expert has insight into a problem that eludes others. Expertise, then, is more akin to a sage or guru.

Therein lies our challenge: How do we build organizations of sages, gurus and visionaries? The second salient answer to emerge from the #lrnchat session gets us a good distance down that road. In the digital world, our networks are repositories on which to draw expertise and our digital skills bring the gurus down from the mountain top to be accessible to all:

Earlier this year, Dion Hinchcliffe outlined a set of essential digital workforce skills, and among them were PKM (Personal Knowledge Mastery), transparency and “working out loud” – all part of building and sharing expertise. In short, it is incumbent that modern workers/learners concentrate of building personal expertise in their field, with a mindset that values deep understanding over a particular set of skills. Acting decisively in the void of the unknown is the essence of expertise.

Authority rests now with those who can lead with expertise and generosity, and who freely share without hesitation or expectation of immediate return. The question becomes, in what domain(s) are you building your expertise? And, how are you sharing it?

The Right Triangle: Connecting dots on three angles, layers

8 May

It’s triangulation time again! Three distinct sources I’ve filtered through in recent weeks have started to connect in an unexpected way, and I think it’s time to explicitly connect them here. It’s Personal Knowledge Mastery (PKM) in action: filtering, sense-making, connecting, sharing.

Item #1. An NPR story about the experience of heroin addicts during—and after—the Vietnam War. The incidence of drug abuse was high for GIs in Southeast Asia, and there was a real fear they would return to the U.S. to become hundreds of thousands of addicts on the streets of our cities.

But that’s not what happened, and it rocked some fundamental thinking about the nature of addiction and habitual behavior. In fact, only 5% of heroin users continued to abuse the drug after they returned home. What researchers found is that context plays an enormous factor in habitual behavior. Once the context of the battlefield conditions was removed and soldiers returned to civilian routines, heroin use plummeted even where access to heroin was still relatively easy. Lesson #1: Context is key for habitual behavior.

Item #2: A CMS Wire article on building high-performing learning organizations came to me via my feed. Business Consultant Edward D. Hess identifies three conditions for building high-functioning learning organizations: 1) the right people; 2) the right environment; 3) the right processes. I encourage you to read the short article, but the takeaway is that a context of innovative culture paired with intentional practices creates the conditions for high-performing learning. Lesson #2: Context needs to be paired with the right tools and processes.

Item #3: I came across a short interview with George Siemens, the godfather of Connectivism, in which he was asked to reflect on MOOCs and their efficacy (or lack thereof). His main thesis is that MOOCs deconstruct the traditional hierarchy of classroom learning {Teacher –> Content –> Students} into a network of learning in which the teacher “is a node in a network, among other nodes. They might still be a very important node, but students can learn from [other sources and each other].” In this case, the teacher needs to pay more attention to the context of learning, ensuring that the students “have the skills and capacity to learn in a networked way … to build the right kind of critical thinking skills.” Lesson #3: Network learning is a new context in which people need to learn a new set of habits.

I was asked recently to speak about how I might build an effective learning program among a geographically and culturally diverse set of learners. Without consciously drawing on these three lessons explicitly, my approach built on them.

An individual is centered on her specific skills and knowledge. Those are what create her sense of self and value to her organization. Outside of that is a layer of her measure against others and against the needs of her position. That is, her competency and her assessment of that competence against requirements and expectations. In order for her to feel growth, opportunity and fulfillment, she needs a way to map her knowledge and skills to design a path of professional growth that aligns with the needs of the organization. Lastly, the outermost layer is the context, mindset and habits (together, that is culture) that allow her to make sense of new information, add her own value to it, and share it back out to her network of other learners. This is PKM in action.

PKM, Cohort, PLN

Through the PKM lens we are able to both glean more productively with our learning cohort or formal community of practice, and form the skills and habits to learn from our constantly shifting professional learning network (PLN) – that network of nodes (people and information) that form the context of personal and organizational learning.

These three layers — workplace learning’s own rule of three — all need to be in place so that both individual and organizational learning happen.

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