We all know experience matters

People know that experience matters, but sometimes we understand neither how much it matters, nor how to measure it. It is said, for instance, that true mastery of a subject takes a lot more than just time: It requires deliberate practice and attention to improvement. Even those we think of as prodigies often required years of focus and practice to achieve mastery in their fields.

An excellent discussion of the very notions of "expertise" and "mastery" from Legg Mason Capital Management suggests that the differences between experts and run-of-the-mill "old hands" at a task are many:

  • Experts are practiced in the art of pattern recognition within their fields. They can see when patterns have emerged that would otherwise be missed by those who have less experience or who have spent less time deliberately learning the patterns of their work.
  • Experts look beyond the superficial to recognize deeper problems. While it might be easy to diagnose a problem, it may be much harder to see the cause behind the cause; that is, to see what circumstances are causing a particular problem to emerge. Second- and third-order causes are difficult to recognize if all of a person's cognitive attention is devoted to figuring out the symptoms.
  • Experts are especially good at knowing the limits of their own competence. Warren Buffett may be regarded as the world's greatest living investor, but he frequently refers in his annual letters to the importance of staying within his "circle of competence". Experts know where their circles of competence end -- and they regularly test themselves to learn from their failures.
What's difficult to tell is just how easy (or hard) it is to transfer expertise from one individual to another. If all expertise were merely a matter of apprenticeship, then anyone could become an expert simply by spending a sufficient amount of time with a skilled professional. That is clearly not enough -- but it does point us in the right direction.

The more expertise we can find "bottled up" inside an organization, the more important it becomes to find younger individuals -- perhaps even a full generation younger than the experts -- and encourage them to practice deliberate expertise-building in their daily work. From studies of expertise, it appears that a deliberate emphasis on pattern recognition and self-testing for success and failure may be the best way to develop the successor generations of experts.

Perhaps a good place to look for guidance about developing experts is the demolition industry -- it's at least as much art as science, and there's a colossal difference between a demolition team that knows what it's doing and one that doesn't. Because it might be funny to watch a building go rolling down a street instead of imploding, but that certainly wasn't the safest outcome. Expertise would've made a lot of difference to the outcome.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Brian Gongol published on August 3, 2009 9:51 PM.

Knowing what you've got before it's gone was the previous entry in this blog.

Annual reports aren't just for the Fortune 500 is the next entry in this blog.

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