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How Understanding the Progression of Expertise Can Improve Your Training Program

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One of the common challenges of building a strong training program is how to move adult learners efficiently from novice to expert. The first step in this process is understanding the stages to best identify how learners may progress from stage to stage.

Training should identify where participants are in the expertise progression and create opportunities to move them efficiently and effectively along this path. The training progression should align with job progression, which might mean that OJT ends when the learner moves from Stage 2 to Stage 3. Identifying the progression in this way provides a framework for the expected standard of work and how much support is needed at a given level to reduce the risk of operations issues.

Stage 1: Novice

Normally, training begins with the instructor breaking down the task environment – the external environment of your organization which affects your ability to reach business goals – into simple pieces and parts that a beginner can recognize without possessing the necessary skill.

For instance, a beginning driver learns to recognize individual separate aspects of driving, like speed and rules for going forward and in reverse. But merely following the rules does not translate to good performance in the real world. Learners need more than the facts. They need to know the context in which the rules fit. Teach pieces and then add context.

Stage 2: Advanced Beginner

As a novice acquires experience in coping with real situations and begins to understand relevant context, they can deal with more aspects of situations. With practice on various scenarios, the beginner can start to recognize new aspects. For example, a chess player can follow “rules of thumb” or shortcut principles, like attacking a weakened king’s side. Different from a procedure, these shortcuts require some understanding of the work. Still, at this stage, learning is carried out in more of a step-by-step frame of mind, with the learner following instructions and being given examples.

Stage 3: Competent

With more experience, the advanced beginner can recognize many more relevant elements. These elements become over­whelming, because the learner does not have a sense of what’s important in any particular situation. Until they develop that perspective, performance is nerve-wracking and exhausting, and the learner likely wonders how anyone is able to do this work.

To cope with the overload at this stage, learners need to know what is important and what is not in a given situation. At this stage, the competent learner needs both rules and reasoning processes. However, at competence, reasoning processes are more complicated than procedures and shortcuts for beginners. There are vast numbers of situations in a complex system – more than can be named or precisely defined. Competent learners in a complex system like the power grid must be able to decide for themselves in each situation what plan or perspective to adopt without being entirely sure it’s correct.

With beginners, if the procedures or task steps don’t work, then the learner can blame the inadequacy of those guidelines. But, at competence, the learner becomes responsible for their decisions.

In general, if an individual needs the safety of rules, he or she will never get beyond competence. At the level of competence, individuals focus on learning a system view which is required for further progress. Trainers can’t pour that into the learner’s heads.

Stage 4: Proficiency

As the competent person becomes more involved in a task or responsibility, with that personal stake in the ground, they find it more difficult to fall back into the step-by-step ways of the beginner, who knows how but not completely why. For proficiency to develop, learners need to make sense of a variety of situations. At this stage, the involved, experienced learner sees goals and important aspects. In a complex system, there are far fewer ways of seeing what is going on than there are ways of reacting. Although the proficient performer sees what is going on and the important aspects of the situation, they must still decide what to do. To decide, the learner needs to rely on the principles and guidelines learned through training and expertise.

Stage 5: Expertise

The expert immediately sees what needs to be done and how to achieve the goal. The ability to get a split-second sense of a situation and what’s important is what distinguishes the expert from the proficient learner. Experts have enough experience in a variety of situations to allow immediate intuitive response. This does not mean the expert knows one right answer, because there is not one right answer in a complex system scenario. Instead, the expert knows what matters and can perform an action and adjust from there. From a human performance perspective, while experts can immediately react, it is more important for them to determine whether or not they should.


Melissa Sease's picture

Thank Melissa for the Post!

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jul 31, 2019 6:37 pm GMT

Continual education-- both to challenge yourself & to learn new topics in the industry that may not have been around before-- is so important. The most successful utility professionals take this to heart. Reminds me of what Thomas Jefferson was often quoted as at University of Virginia, where I studied, that education was never complete-- so instead of Freshmen to Senior classes we had First Years to Fourth years. Education continues!

Melissa Sease's picture
Melissa Sease on Jul 31, 2019 8:57 pm GMT

Great insight, Matt. The utility industry has, and continues to make, impressive advancements in training and human performance initiatives. I remember not so many years ago that tribal learning was the best you could hope for. We've got to up our game in training in order to recruit and sustain the cream of the crop professionals.

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