One of the really tough nuts to crack in KM has been how to transfer the knowledge of experts to those less skilled. Organizations have made a lot of attempts. One of the early attempts was made by the World Bank, who video-taped (this was very early when it really was tape) interviews with experts from around the world, for example, a very experienced road construction engineer in Pakistan or a long-time education expert in Brazil. The Bank ended up with an impressive video library, which unfortunately, very few people ever bothered to look at. I’ve seen organizations conduct lengthy exit interviews with retiring experts, as well as, engaging in more scientific attempts to identify and then get down on paper, (or a mind map) that 10% of an expert’s experience which made that expert extraordinary. You probably have your own stories of failed attempts, lists of Best Practices, cases, banks of stories….
Even given a long history failed attempts to "capture" expertise, we just can’t seem to get past this idea that an expert’s mind is like a filing cabinet where we can just wisk out a file and hand it over to someone else.
If we are going to crack this nut, we need a better image – a more accurate way to think about how experts create and store the knowledge they use. A more accurate image would then allow us to think of better ways to transfer that knowledge to others.
The image I have found most useful is to think of an expert’s mind as a box of Lego pieces. That image rings true because neuroscience tells us that experts, as well as the rest of us, store what we learn, not as lessons or answers, but as fragments or bits and pieces located throughout our minds. The expert has accumulated those pieces over years of working on problems. Every piece represents an experience the expert has had, both successful and unsuccessful.
When faced with a new problem or task the expert considers the elements of his current context and then begins to look for pieces in his box that relate to this new task as well as the current context. Having recalled some of those relevant past experiences he begins to “construct” a solution. The operant work is “construct” – meaning he combines those experiences in the moments of facing the problem. As he draws on those experiences he is also thinking about the context in which each occurred and comparing that context to of the one he is currently facing.
Like Lego blocks, those same experiences can be put together in different configurations. If he were to face the same problem next week he might construct a quite different solution because during the week he has added more experiences to his box. What differentiates an expert from someone who is simply competent is both the number of experiences he has had and the range of those experiences - so that when he begins his search for relevant “Lego pieces” he has more and more varied pieces to choose from. Ashby’s* law of requisite variety at work!
Let’s turn to a real life example. This example is from Julian Orr’s study of copy repair technicians. Orr explains that the repair technicians, in a given geographic area, often meet at the same restaurant for lunch. Orr describes a meeting where Alice, who has a problem she wants some help with, shows up for lunch. She has no faith in the diagnostics that are in the manual about the problem she is facing. The diagnostics tell her to change the board, but she has changed the board numerous times and has come to believe there is a deeper problem, which is causing board after board to fail, and she knows that the diagnostics do not consider that possibility.
“Alice brings with her copies of a log from the machine that is troubling her in the hopes that others will get interested in the puzzle. Most of the conversation over lunch is between she and Fred. Fred says he can’t go with her [to look at the machine] but begins to tell her how he would approach the problem. … Fred starts to tell her about running the noise test, and then says she probably cannot do it if the machine will not run at all. … He tells her about testing the communication lines. After she checks the communication lines, [he explains] she should follow the procedures the book specifies for that error code. Another technician, Bill, asks Fred if the manual specifies testing the communication lines the way Fred has just described; [Fred acknowledges] the book only says to check them but Fred prefers more rigorous testing. [Alice] knows his suggestions are based on experience, that they are things he has found to do to shortcut the diagnostic procedures.”*
Fred’s response to Alice goes far beyond what can be written in any manual. The exchange arises out of a real problem that Alice is confronting and to respond Fred must draw on his wealth of experience related to that type of problem. Bill’s question to Fred, about what is in the manual, causes Fred to draw together different bits of his experience to respond to Bill. As he is explaining, Alice is listening not only to his solution but also to how he thinks about solving such problems. In this way Alice is building her own base of experience from which to draw.
Given how expert knowledge is developed an effective transfer process would have these properties:
- allows the learner to observe the expert in action
- involves real problems, not hypothetical
- expands the learner’s base of experience
- provides a venue in which the learner can question the expert’s actions and equally important probe his reasoning
- the learner’s brain is actively involved, not just listening but engaged in problem solving
See, Do, Teach
See, Do, Teach is a knowledge transfer process designed to incorporate the needed learning elements to quickly develop expertise through an intensive, immersive period of learning over a month or more.
Think of an employee, maybe a testing engineer, a salesperson, or a facilitator, who is competent, but falls short of having the expertise the company needs to replace those retiring. Now imagine that learner shadowing an expert as that expert goes about his normal work. Watching what the expert does, what he says, how he interacts, and his tone of voice. Maybe the learner sits in the back of the room in meetings, inconspicuously taking notes, or perhaps looks over his shoulder as the expert makes a difficult calculation. Then imagine, over coffee or lunch, the learner asking the questions that have been puzzling him, “How did you decide today was the right time to give the client a call?” “Why did you start the meeting with that question?” “How did you decide that tolerance level was acceptable?” And from the answers, begins understand not only what to do, but how to think about choosing those actions.
See Do Teach is a three part series of engagements between an Expert and a Learner. The See Do Teach process transfers tacit knowledge more effectively than written documents because the learner repeatedly observes the behavior he or she is expected to emulate.
1. See - A Learner shadows a high level Expert over a period of time as he or she interacts with problems, clients or issues. Following each engagement, the two hold a structured debrief – where the Learner asks questions to understand the “why” behind the actions of the Expert. Both learner and expert receive training in how to ask questions that draw out tacit knowledge and ways to provide reasoning.
2. Do – The Learner now does the interacting with the problems, client or issues over a period of time, all the while being shadowed by the Expert. Again following each engagement the two hold a debrief. It is not enough to copy the action of someone else, it is also necessary to understand why that specific action rather than some other.
3. Teach – When the Learner and Expert confirm competence has been developed, the Learner takes the role of Expert and a new Learner is assigned to shadow him or her. Teaching the skills to another embeds the knowledge more deeply, helping it to become increasingly tacit.
Now expand that image of the Expert to 5 or 20 Experts all participating in See Do Teach, each with a shadow. Imagine how quickly expertise could grow as each shadow becomes fully qualified as an Expert and ready to continue expanding the pool of experts.
See, Do, Teach is observational learning, a proven process based on the Social Learning theory of Bandura*, the organizational learning theory of Argyris, and reflecting my own experience working with The Leader Challenge in CompanyCommand*. Those who work in healthcare will recognize observational learning as a standard method of transferring knowledge whether in the operating room, or the ER. How many times have you noticed a young resident, standing in the back ground as a medical specialist examines you?
Please contact me if you want to know more about See Do Teach.
* Ashby’s law of requisite variety - “the internal diversity of any self-regulating system must match the variety and complexity of its environment if it is to deal with the challenges posed by that environment” Ashby, Ross. 1956. An Introduction to Cybernetics. Chapman & Hall.
* Orr, Julian. 1996. Talking About Machines. Cornell University Press,
* Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
* Argyris, Chris. (1993) Knowledge for Action. Jossey-Bass
* Dixon, Nancy, Nate Allen, Tony Burgess, Pete Kilner and Steve Schweitzer. (2005) CompanyCommand: Unleashing the Power of the Army Profession. Center for the Advancement of Organizational Learning, West Point