In a Constantly Changing Environment, Can Anyone Ever Truly Be an Expert?

What are skills, how do we attain them, and how can we master them? In a constantly changing technological environment, can anyone truly become an expert?

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By Adam Etzion, HR Analyst @ Gloat

October 5, 2020

mastering skills

Back in 1980, brothers Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus, both researchers at the University of California, Berkley, were asked by the United States Air Force Office of Scientific Research to come up with a model of skill acquisition, in the hopes of improving their pilot training program. 

After interviewing dozens of pilots, as well as experts, novices and intermediates in various other fields, the brothers Dreyfus came up with “A Five-Stage Model of the Mental Activities Involved in Directed Skill Acquisition” – a model still in use today by learning and instruction experts the world over. The conclusions drawn from the Dreyfus’ model were aimed, primarily, at training pilots and other skilled professionals for specific, pre-set jobs and tasks – but as the world around us changes, it may be time to re-examine this model and ask how it can help in the training of a dynamic, agile workforce, which faces constant goal-changes and reskilling efforts. 

Can companies reorganize themselves in a way that better suits the new needs of this changing workforce? And can employees who are constantly asked to learn new skills ever truly master any of them, or should companies expect only a cursory grasp of the new abilities their employees take on? 

Before we can answer these questions, let’s take a quick look at the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition.

A Five-Stage Model of the Mental Activities Involved in Directed Skill Acquisition

The Dreyfus brothers’ model (available here) stipulates that in the attainment of new skills, people go through five stages: Novice, Competence, Proficiency, Expertise, and, finally, Mastery (although this was later adjusted in the Dreyfus’ book Mind over Machine to “Novice, Advanced Beginner, Competence, Proficient, and Expert”). 

The Dreyfuses break down each of these learning stages to four different aspects: Recollection, Recognition, Decision, and Awareness. 

As an individual progresses in their skill acquisition, the way they recognize and recollect the meaning of the various elements of the situation they’re in (be it flying a plane, speaking a new language or playing chess) and then make a choice based on them. But as they become more proficient, the experiential nature of the situation and their very awareness of it change as well. While novice pilots, for example, are mostly concerned with reading the various instruments in their cockpit, flight masters are hardly aware of the cockpit at all; instead, their experience is of flying.

 

Skill Level/ Mental Function

Novice

Competence

Proficiency

Expertise

Mastery

Recollection

Non-Situational

Situational

Situational

Situational

Situational

Recognition

Decomposed

Decomposed

Holistic

Holistic

Holistic

Decision

Analytical

Analytical

Analytical

Intuitive

Intuitive

Awareness

Monitoring

Monitoring

Monitoring

Monitoring

Absorbed

For graphic designers, this could be the difference between looking for the right paintbrush in Photoshop, or expending that same mental energy on how to convey a feeling of affinity for the product. As proficiency increases, the decision-making process changes, too. When a novice is presented with a new situation, they need to examine the information in front of them, and, cross-checking with the various rules and variables they’ve been taught, arrive at an analytical decision. An expert or a master, on the other hand, has a developed-enough intuition to make the right choice without actively thinking about all of its disparate elements at all.

Skills Must Be Attained Within the Context in Which They're Performed

Throughout the paper, the Dreyfus brothers stress that the attainment of skills must be within the context in which they’re performed, and that while theory has its place, real learning is almost always experiential. They then go on to explain that to reach consecutively higher skill levels, each previous level must be first completely attained. In their words:

“The designer of training aids and courses must at all times be aware of the developmental stage of the student, so as to facilitate the trainee’s advancement to the next stage, and to avoid the temptation to introduce intricate and sophisticated aids which, although they might improve performance at a particular level, would impede advancement to a higher stage, or even encourage regression to a lower one.”

So what are the implications of these findings for an agile workforce? Is there a way to track the developmental stage of employees? And as reskilling becomes a routine part of employee experience, can they ever truly master a skill? Finally, on an organizational level, is there really a significant difference between a “competent” workforce and a workforce made up of masters?

Tracking Professional Progress and Learning on the Job

On the one hand, the Dreyfus brothers suggest that learning should be done through “real-world” experiences that take into account the context of the skills being developed. On the other, they insist that running ahead with advanced materials can be detrimental to an individual’s progress in attaining a skill. In a controlled training environment – like pilot training – these two criteria can easily be consolidated, but in an active work environment, how can you both provide “on-the-job training” in real surroundings with real stakes, whilst simultaneously ensuring the trainee isn’t jumping too far ahead and damaging his or her own progress in the process?

Additionally, in a reality in which employees constantly need to reskill and upskill, and in which organizations regularly pivot the products, strategies and goals, there’s a to provide experiential training not just once, but constantly, as a routine part of an employee’s responsibilities.

Happily, it isn’t just the needs of the organization that have evolved in the past decades; technology has evolved along with them. Today, with the help of smart tools like the Talent Marketplace and AI-driven career pathing tools, it’s possible to provide a steady stream of learning opportunities within an organization and to make sure they perfectly align with the employee’s current stage of professional development.

But is this enough, if we want employees to be true masters of their craft?

skill acquisition

Gaining an Edge with a Masterful Workforce

You may ask yourself if having a workforce made up of masters of their respective crafts is a worthwhile goal. After all, can’t organizations get by with people just carrying out their respective tasks, even if they don’t immediately and intuitively grasp the challenges and opportunities a specific assignment may offer?

For an unchanging, industrial production line with a single product, that may be so. But as companies become more agile and dynamic, having experts in their field staff company positions mean more than getting the job done faster; it means they’ll be able to see ahead and identify possible pitfalls on more levels, take more initiative and help the company reach its goals more efficiently. In an unstable market, this can be the difference between thriving and going under.

In an unstable market, a workforce made up of experts in their field can be the difference between thriving and going under.

Mastering a Changing Skill Set

As companies become more dynamic, the skillsets they require from their employees have become more dynamic as well. This means that while employees have better tools to help them become experts, the things they’re expected to become experts in are quite different, and are changing all the time. In this constant state of flux, is it even possible to master a specific skill before it becomes obsolete?

The answer is more complicated than a simple “yes” or “no.”

Some skills, like soft skills, and professional tools used for specific tasks (like video and image editing, for instance) will still be used, and their users will still be able to attain mastery (aided, no doubt, by AI-driven solutions like the Talent Marketplace, which allows employees to take part in all sorts of career-building experiences).

Higher-level strategic skills required by executives to steer the business forward will also continue to be honed, and C-level execs will be able to master the art of, for instance, being a CEO or a CHRO, though they, too, will become reliant on smart organizational tools and the the insights AI-based human resource management platforms can offer. 

But for most skills – skills used by everyone in between the craftspeople using Photoshop and the executives running the company – will require a new type of expertise; expertly moving forward with new tools as they become available, even with only limited knowledge of their abilities. This “middle-class” of skills – like mechanical engineering, programming, and QA –  are in a constant state of disruption. As AI, automation and digitization continue to transform the workplace and change the type of abilities and activities needed for production, the skills required to “be” a mechanical engineer are transformed as well. 

It’s difficult to know which of these professions and skills will eventually stabilize, and which will continue to change and evolve along with emerging tech – which is why it is extremely important for organizations to be able to track changes in skill supply and demand, as well as where which skills are concentrated. As new skill paradigms emerge, companies that use tools like the Talent Marketplace to track these changes will have a distinct advantage in both knowing where they stand in relation to the realization of the full potential of skill mastery by their employees, as well as to where they need to concentrate efforts in order to close newly-opened gaps. As for fields in which required skills continue to change and evolve – it’s possible that only a more basic level of competency is possible, and that the new skill masters will be those people who are able to quickly adapt and become competent as new technologies are introduced. This would mean that creating an environment in which people can experiment with different positions and explore different avenues of thought and experience is not just important for organizational agility – it’s critical for developing workforces with the adaptive skills required for the future.

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