Becoming an Expert and Then Staying One

A Model for Maintaining Expertise in the Modern Workplace

Everyone who has read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers knows of his premise that to become an expert in any field takes 10,000 hours. But today the amount of knowledge available in any given field increases at a phenomenal rate. This begs the question once one becomes and expert how do you stay one?

Outdated too quickly

Authors Jenne Meister and Karie Willyerd who wrote The 2020 Workplace said that as recently as 1986 “the percentage of knowledge you had to store in your head to accomplish your job was 75 percent…Now you can store only about 10 percent of the knowledge you need to do your job— meaning you have to rely on a myriad of other sources to do your job.” Thus it is very difficult to become an expert today. It takes you almost 5 years of 40 hour a week studying in a field to reach that 10,000 hours, yet when you get there what you know is outdated. And then you have to start all over again, much like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountainside in Greek mythology.

This is not only a difficulty for individuals but for those companies that rely on those experts to create their products, systems and methods that allow them to outpace their competitors. Experts typically bring more value to an organization, but as Meister and Willyerd point out they are a smaller group of people and, in times of reduced expenditures, companies cannot justify setting up training for a small group of people. So the experts are often left to their own devices to maintain their expertise and that is becoming an ever more daunting task. Meister and Willyerd suggest that companies are going to have to provide a more comprehensive learning environment for their experts to remain experts and to be able to develop others.

Social learning ecosystem

They used the phrase “social learning ecosystem” to propose a four quadrant model to describe this ecosystem. It consists of:

Guided Compentency development which consists of formal learning using a more sophisticated model of formel learning. It utilizes “edutainmen”, virtual training, and a sophisticated campus set-up that promotes student interaction with the instructor and the other students.

Guided Contextual learning takes advantage of custom experiental learning like business simulations, anonymoust on-demand mentoring using technology, and advanced mobile technology allowing users to get training via their tablets or smart phones.

Social Compentency development which uses group mentoring at various levels, including blogs written by key leaders in order to pass on their advice to a broader audience. It also includes what they call “on-demand microfeedback” which allows people to get immediate feedback allowing them to make adjustments in knowledge on the go 140 characters at a time, sort of Twitter as performance review.

Social Contextual learning allows employees to share their knowledge with other on the areas they are considered an authority on or expert in. We already see this with blogs and YouTube videos. Today you can find a video that demonstrates just about anything you want to learn. Another method is by making knowledge transfer an aspect of someone’s phased retirement.

So these four quadrants offer some solutions to the dillema of how to maintain an expertise. You do it through collabortive efforts, social interaction, retained knowledge and use of technology. I know some of these efforts have worked for me. What about you?

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Mike Haberman

Michael (Mike) D. Haberman, SPHR is a consultant, speaker, writer of HR Observations, and co-founder of Omega HR Solutions, Inc. After over 30 years in HR he got tired of the past and focuses here on the Future of HR. Connect with Mike.


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