Practice Makes Perfect Revisited: Deliberate Practice and the Development of Expertise


By Tom Gram

Well-designed practice is what separates meaningful learning from passive information presentation.  But do we design adequate practice to build the expertise needed in the modern workplace?  Recent research (led by Anders Ericsson at Florida State and popularized in  Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers and Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated) suggests that the type of practice needed to develop experts is more “deliberate” and effortful than we thought, and that it must be embedded in the context of real work.  Also, it must occur on a regular basis over much longer periods of time.

This has implications for learning and HR professionals.  It argues for a profound shift away from event based learning to informal learning or learning from experience.  However simplistic notions of informal learning also don’t work.  So how should we rethink the design of practice?  To answer that question it helps to understanding what expertise looks like. 

Ericsson’s research has found that top performing individuals at work, consistently demonstrate the following characteristics compared to novices and lower performing individuals:

  • They perceive more.  Experts see patterns, make finer discriminations, interpret situations more quickly and as a result make faster, more accurate decisions. 
  • They know more.  Not only do experts have more facts and details available to them, they have more tacit knowledge–that all-important unconscious “know how” that only comes with experience.
  • They have superior mental models.  Experience helps experts have rich internal representations of how things work and how knowledge is connected.  They use this to learn and understand situations more rapidly.
  • They use personal networks more effectively.  Experts know who to go to for help. 
  • They have superior “meta-cognition”. Experts set goals, self evaluate against a standard, and make corrections and make adjustments more quickly from feedback.

Deliberate Practice: The Path to Developing Expertise
These signatures of expertise are the result of years of effortful, progressive practice — what Ericsson and his colleagues call “Deliberate Practice”.   It requires specific, and sustained effort to learn something new.   Six elements for are necessary for deliberate practice.

  • It must be designed to improve performance.  Opportunities for practice must have a goal and evaluation criteria.
  • It must be based on authentic tasks.  The practice must use real work and be performed in context. 
  • It must be challenging.  The tasks selected for practice must slightly outside of the learners comfort zone, but not so far out as produce anxiety or panic.
  • Immediate feedback on results. Diagnostic feedback must be continuously available both from people (coaches) and the business results produced by the activity.
  • Reflection and adjustment.  Feedback requires reflection and analysis to inform behaviour change.
  • 10,000 hours. For complex work, ten years seems to be the necessary investment of in deliberate practice to achieve expertise.  Malcolm Gladwell drew attention to the 10,000 hour rule in his book Outliers.

Practice Revisited: Implications for learning and HR professionals
So how do we better support the novice to expert journey, embed learning and practice in the job, and build the tacit knowledge and rich feedback needed in our organizations?  Fortunately there are number approaches available to us that align well to these requirements.  Most are not training events.  They do however have a structure to them and require significant support.

  • Action Learning. Small teams create a plan of action to solve a real business problem.  Impacts of these actions are observed, analyzed, lessons extracted and new actions prepared. 
  • Cognitive Apprenticeship. The standard apprenticeship model updated for knowledge work.  Instead of demonstrating a manual skill, experts model and describe their thinking to “apprentices” who then work on the same problem while they articulate and verbalize their own reasoning.
  • Communities of Practice. Groups with common professional or project goals work together sharing and discussing best practices.  In doing so they develop rich tacit knowledge that is often impossible in formal learning programs. 
  • Simulation and Games.  Great simulations are a surrogate for real experience.  This allows the learner to attempt challenging tasks, experience failure and learn from errors–all critical elements of deliberate practice. 
  • Feedback in the Workflow.  Wonderful natural feedback exists in the form of business results and performance data.  We don’t tend to think of it as a learning tool, but in the context of deliberate practice, it’s one of the most powerful.
  • Stretch Assignments with Coaching.  One of the most powerful approaches to “practice” is challenging work assignments that push current capabilities.

These approaches and others like them occupy that fuzzy middle ground between informal and formal learning.  Each can be aided significantly by social media and learning technologies.  Most importantly, they are approaches that allow us to apply the research on “deliberate practice” to help improve our organizations and in doing so improve our own professional performance. 

Tom Gram is presenting Practice Makes Perfect Revisited at the HRMA Conference + Tradeshow in Vancouver May 1-2, 2013.

Tom Gram is Senior Director of Professional Services Leadership and Business Solutions at Global Knowledge. He has over 25 years designing and managing training, e-learning and electronic performance support at organizations including Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Mount Allison University. Tom has an M.A. in Educational Technology and is a Certified Training and Development Professional (CTDP) and Certified management Consultant (CMC).

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