Saturday, March 7, 2020

How to build expertise in anything

Toward a Path of Building Capacity and Expertise
Aaron S. Robertson, MSM
Cardinal Stritch University
December, 2016


The paper explores the nature of individual learning, arguing in the end that individual learning is actually a social process, event, or phenomenon. It makes the case through a combination of academic research, anecdotal evidence, and the author’s personal reflection, with the broader conversation framed within the context of going from novice to expertise. The paper begins with the author’s assertion that leadership, learning, and service are intricately linked. Along the way, it incorporates a literature review exploring the journey to building expertise and defining distributed leadership; intertwines an interview conducted by the author with his manager at his work organization, Stericycle, Inc.; and includes an original graphic representation of how the author believes his work organization fosters an environment of learning and growth. The paper concludes by offering advice and implications for leaders as it pertains to building capacity and expertise within their organizations. Its ultimate conclusions are that individual learning is social in nature; deliberate practice is needed in order for anyone to truly build expertise; and the best way to connect these two elements in organizations is through the philosophy and application of distributed leadership.

Keywords: leadership, learning, novice to expert, building capacity, acquiring expertise, deliberate practice, distributed leadership

Toward a Path of Building Capacity and Expertise


This author believes that leadership, learning, and service are intricately linked together. While this paper focuses primarily on the facet of learning – and, more specifically, how individuals and organizations alike can go from novice to acquiring true expertise – leadership and service will come to naturally have a place in the discussion, as well. This author, in explaining his overall philosophy where it concerns learning and its relationship with leadership and service, notes in a 2015 paper entitled, “What Leadership Means to Me”:
The driving force behind the journey, the one facet providing significant support to the other two, is learning. Learning is behind it all. When one is continuously learning, one is compelled to share the insights gained with others, thereby fulfilling leadership and service. The leadership and service components, then, are naturally attained because the insights being gained by the individual, which in turn are then dispersed out to others, are helping those others in some sort of meaningful way, either personally or professionally. For, what is the point in one’s desire to be in a continuous state of learning, embarked on an ongoing journey of discovery and adventure, without sharing that knowledge and wisdom with others, thereby lifting them up in some sort of impactful way? How is it even possible to avoid doing so? This author cannot think of a logical explanation. Even when the learner may not consciously be aware at any given moment in time of what his or her discoveries may mean in terms of service and leadership to others – he or she may solely be focused on his or her own career advancement or some sort of other personal gain at that moment – what is being learned, nonetheless, is still helping others along the way as he or she strives to climb higher on the latter of personal success. This arguably holds especially true today, in such an intertwined global community, workplace, and economy. That being said, learning for personal gain is compatible with learning for the benefit of others, and vice-versa, and leadership and service are not possible without the presence of learning. Therefore, anyone who has the capacity to learn has the potential to be a leader to at least some degree. (Robertson, 2015, para. 13, 14)
While this statement reflects more of an individual take on learning, this author, in the same paper, also reflects on learning from an organizational standpoint, as well, and describes the widespread benefits that learning organizations can come to have on whole societies and economies:
This author’s desire to create and foster a learning organization is driven by a strong passion to see others flourish and maximize their potential. By incorporating the philosophies and strategies – essentially, the culture – that create the proper conditions for a learning organization, both individual and organizational opportunity become virtually limitless. And while such outcomes only appear at first glance to be immediately beneficial to the organization implementing such a culture, as well as to the individuals within that organization, the broader implications for whole societies and economies become evident over the long term as such organizations partner with others on ventures and the individuals within these organizations leave for others, cross-pollinating with their acquired knowledge and wisdom. Therefore, learning organizations drive broader change and improvement in entire societies and economies, and because of this fact, are socially responsible merely by virtue of their ideals and commitments where fostering authentic learning is concerned. (Robertson, 2015, para. 10)
It is the goal of this paper to further expand on many of these concepts, with, as previously stated, more of a focus on the subject of building expertise, what this journey looks like, and advice and implications for leaders on fostering this path. This author argues in this latest paper that individual learning is actually social in nature; that deliberate practice is required in order to truly build expertise; and that the presence of distributed leadership in organizations marries these two elements and provides the conditions needed for growth and success, for both the individual, and, by extension, the organization. If it is true that organizations are made up of individuals acting in concert together in order to carry out some sort of joint cause, mission, or goal; and if organizations cannot exist without the presence and commitment of individuals; then, whatever is beneficial for the individual from the standpoint of learning and growth is also beneficial for the organization, and vice-versa.

Literature Review

From novice to expertise

There is no doubt about the role learning plays in the success of both individuals and organizations. Casey (2005), citing other scholarly sources in her own work, a work that, “…proposes a sociological model of organizational learning based on Parsons’ general theory of action” (from the abstract, p. 131), notes, “For decades individual learning in organizations has been seen as critical to an organization’s capacity to change and survive over time (Crossan et al., 1999; Marsick and Watkins, 1996; Nonaka, 1994; Senge, 1990)” (p. 131). While the hard-dollar return on investment may always be up for debate within individual organizations based on how their current professional development and learning programs are set up, the investment itself is certainly far from insignificant. Daley (1999), in her qualitative study that analyzed a total of 20 semi-structured interviews in order to gauge differences between novice and expert nurses, points out that, “In the United States, business and industry, including health care, spend billions of dollars on the training and development of professionals” (p. 133). Citing Rowden’s (1996) work, she continues on, “In fact, ‘employers spend over $50 billion per year on formal employee training and education. Approximately $180 billion per year is spent on informal, on-the-job training’ (Rowden, 1996, p. 3)” (Daley, 1999, p. 133).

But for all of this money spent by organizations on professional development and learning programs of both the formal and the more informal varieties, and armed with a nearly-universal, generally-agreed-upon understanding that there is no doubt that learning is needed for success and growth in both life and business, why are there individuals and organizations not performing at their true peak? What does the journey from novice to genuine expertise look like, and how can individuals, and, by natural extension, organizations, reach the latter? In other words, how do individuals and organizations alike go from learning in such a way that allows them to perform at a level a little above “getting by” and merely meeting goals, to truly mastering a skill set, talent, or job role?

The seminal work entitled, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” (Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Romer, 1993), which blends modern research and theory with classic studies and observations going as far back as the mid-19th century, proposes that, in order for one to truly acquire mastery at something, one must undergo the rigor of what the authors call deliberate practice. As the authors note, “…maximization of deliberate practice is neither short-lived nor simple. It extends over a period of at least 10 years and involves optimization within several constraints” (Ericsson et al., 1993, p. 368). These several constraints are identified by the authors as the resource constraint, the motivational constraint, and the effort constraint (Ericsson et al., 1993, p. 368-369).

The mention by Ericsson et al. that at least 10 years are needed in order for one to truly acquire expertise should not be confused with the generally-widespread yet false assumptions that mere time alone spent in a particular field, or mere practice alone, makes someone an expert in it. The authors strongly disagree with both, and their thinking is also in line with Daley (1999), who cites the work of Ferry and Ross-Gordon (1998), when she notes:
Ferry and Ross-Gordon’s study of extension educators explored the links between experience and reflective practice. In their view, ‘the key to expertise does not seem to reside in merely gaining experience, but in how the individual uses experience as a learning mechanism’ (Ferry and Ross-Gordon, 1998, p. 107). (Daley, 1999, p. 134)
Daley (1999) also points to the research of Chi, Feltovich, and Glaser (1980) to further validate the argument that mere time and/or practice are not sufficient for truly building expertise:
…studies in physics analyzed the differences between experts and novices in solving physics problems. Findings indicated that ‘experts initially abstract physics principles to approach and solve a problem representation, whereas novices base their representation and approaches on the problem’s literal features’ (Chi, Feltovich, and Glaser, 1980, p. 121). (Daley, 1999, p. 134)
Frontier and Mielke (2016) make the connection between acquiring expertise and having clear, well-defined goals. In a hypothetical situation, the reader is asked to imagine that she or he needs to quickly find a replacement for a foursome playing in an upcoming annual golf outing for charity. In the scenario, the reader approaches two golfers, and must decide which one will make for the better replacement. The two golfers that are approached each want to progress in their skill level. The first one simply states that he is, “…playing a lot and really trying to get better” (p. unknown), while the second one tells the reader, “For the last couple of months I’ve been working on changing my backswing on uphill puts that break to the left and I’ve noticed a remarkable difference in my short game” (Frontier and Mielke, 2016, p. unknown). The authors make a very important point, reaffirming what Daley (1999) and Ericsson et al. (1993) are already on to, when they note that, “For the first golfer, playing more may simply mean repeating the same mistakes that have always been made…with greater frequency” (Frontier and Mielke, 2016, p. unknown).

If it is true, then, that mere time alone, or mere practice alone, is not sufficient for one to build expertise, what do the authors Ericsson et al. (1993) mean when they assert that at least 10 years are needed for the development of true mastery? They mean that deliberate practice must be consistently present within that time. While deliberate practice entails a true desire and commitment on the part of the individual to master a skill set, talent, or job role, it also includes actively recalibrating the resources, teachers, goals, and design of the practice periodically, so that true progress is constantly taking place and real understanding developed (Ericsson et al., 1993). This is in stark contrast to what was previously described in this paper by this author as a generally wide-held yet false belief by many that mere time alone, or mere practice alone, equates to expertise. Put more simply, someone stating that she or he has x number of years in such-and-such industry, alone, does not mean that the person has true mastery of the field. Likewise, someone stating that she or he practices at something x number of times per week, alone, also does not translate to any real level of expertise. Again, as Frontier and Mielke (2016) point out in their golf tournament scenario, “For the first golfer, playing more may simply mean repeating the same mistakes that have always been made…with greater frequency” (p. unknown). As just one more case in point to further clarify this distinction, Ericsson et al. (1993), in reaching back to a classic study, note that:
The view that merely engaging in a sufficient amount of practice, regardless of the structureof that practice, leads to maximal performance has a long and contested history. In their classic studies of Morse Code operators, Bryan and Harter (1897, 1899) identified plateaus in skill acquisition, when for long periods subjects seemed unable to attain further improvements. However, with extended efforts, subjects could restructure their skill to overcome plateaus. Keller (1958) later showed that these plateaus in Morse Code reception were not an inevitable characteristic of skill acquisition, but could be avoided by different and better training methods. Nonetheless, Bryan and Harter (1897, 1899) had clearly shown that with mere repetition, improvement of performance was often arrested at less than maximal levels, and further improvement required effortful reorganization of the skill. Even very experienced Morse Code operators could be encouraged to dramatically increase their performance through deliberate efforts when further improvements were required for promotions and external rewards (Bryan & Harter, 1897). (p. 365)
Distributed Leadership

Distributed leadership is an approach to organizational leadership that emphasizes the breakdown of traditional notions of singular leaders (whether by way of title, seniority, real or perceived authority, and so on) in favor of a more collective, or team-style, approach to leadership. Lefoe, Hadgraft, Jones, Ryland, and Harvey (n.d.) states that leaders acting under the distributed leadership approach can come from any and all relevant levels, disciplines, groups, or functions within an organization (p.7, 10) to engage in this process of leadership, which is more social in nature (Uhl-Bien, 2006; Bolden, 2011). Perhaps a more succinct definition and overview of distributed leadership may be as follows:
Distributed leadership has become a popular ‘post-heroic’ (Badaracco 2001) representation of leadership which has encouraged a shift in focus from the attributes and behaviours of individual ‘leaders’ (as promoted within traditional trait, situational, style and transformational theories of leadership – see Northouse 2007 for a review) to a more systemic perspective, whereby ‘leadership is conceived of as a collective social process emerging through the interactions of multiple actors’ (Uhl-Bien 2006). (Bolden, 2011, p. 251)
Arguably, greater results are achieved and smarter decisions are arrived at within the framework of distributed leadership because more perspectives are vetted, more expertise is shared, and more angles are explored (Robertson, 2016). By utilizing this team approach that brings together individuals that may not otherwise receive an opportunity to work with each other, learning and growth for these individuals is greatly enhanced, and this serves to not only strengthen individual talent and expertise, but certainly advances the interests of the organization as a whole. Timperley (2005), in discussing distributed leadership within the context of a school system, in particular, notes:
Hopes that the transformation of schools lies with exceptional leaders have proved both unrealistic and unsustainable. The idea of leadership as distributed across multiple people and situations has proven to be a more useful framework for understanding the realities of schools and how they might be improved. (p. 395)
In the mind of this author, replacing the word schools in Timperley’s statement above with businesses or even simply the more generic organizations makes as much sense (Robertson, 2016).

An Interview with a Leader to Discuss the Path from Novice to Expert

On the evening of October 20, 2016, this author interviewed his manager, Kelli M. Harrigan, to inquire about her path from novice to expert in her line of work. Both participants are employed by Stericycle, Inc., working in the company’s communications solutions division and out of the Brookfield, Wisconsin office. That is where this interview took place. The interview was audio recorded, and was also transcribed by Ashley M. Weber on the following day, October 21, 2016, at said office. Ms. Weber is a colleague of this author. The conversation was roughly 20 minutes in length.

To provide further context and a firmer foundation for understanding the interview, this author, Ms. Harrigan (the interviewee), and Ms. Weber work for a telephone answering service and call center based in Brookfield. Currently, as of this writing, the office has nearly 50 staff attached to it. From 1983-2014, the business operated as Spectrum Communications, a small, local, family-owned and operated business. The owners of Spectrum Communications, husband-and-wife team Roy and Mari Osmon, retired during the summer of 2014, selling the business to Stericycle, a national, publicly-traded firm with a truly-international presence and multiple divisions and lines of business. The Brookfield office is a part of the company’s communications solutions division, or Comsol for short. Ms. Harrigan is the daughter of Ms. Osmon, and the step-daughter of Mr. Osmon. In addition to serving as the contact center manager for the Brookfield office, Ms. Harrigan now also manages another Comsol office in Southfield, Michigan, as well.

During the interview Ms. Harrigan indicated that she has been in the industry since the age of 15, having started working in her parents’ business while still in high school (K. Harrigan, personal communication, October 20, 2016). Among the themes that emerged from the conversation that were identified by this author, Ms. Harrigan possesses a natural curiosity; an eagerness to learn new things; a talent for technology; and an ability to ask others questions, build strong relationships and networking connections, and adapt with ease in a quickly-changing environment. With these attributes, Ms. Harrigan has been able to develop significant mastery of the industry in her more than 30 years working in it through a richly-diverse plethora of roles (K. Harrigan, personal communication, October 20, 2016). She has built a true understanding of the business model that extends far beyond the basic hard technical skills required, to include the big-picture philosophical and theoretical implications of this kind of organization and work.

Individual Learning is a Social Process, Event, or Phenomenon

This author, based on the previous discussions in this paper on deliberate practice, distributed leadership, the highlights of the interview with this author’s manager, and the graphic representation demonstrating the learning environment at his work organization, is convinced that individual learning is really social in nature. He agrees with, “…the assumption that the process and outcomes of individual learning are inherently social” (Casey, 2005, p. 132). While there is no doubt that individuals are separate beings and that the drive and motivation to learn, grow, and build expertise ultimately rests with the individual and must come from within, the act (of learning) and instruments themselves are highly social in nature, for we as individuals are always dependent upon other individuals for our own personal growth.

To build on this argument, a number of examples can easily be gleaned from the discussions so far. For starters, as Ms. Harrigan shared in the interview that this author had conducted with her, she built up a lot of her capacity and expertise over many years by frequently interacting with, and learning from, her peers in her broader industry, whether these peers were from friendly-competitor businesses, team involvement in industry associations, or equipment and software vendors. Now a team member with Stericycle, she certainly continues to interact with, and learn from, many others, both from within the broader organization and outside of it. Ms. Harrigan also mentioned that she does a lot of online reading in an effort to keep current with trends and ideas (K. Harrigan, personal communication, October 20, 2016). This content, certainly, is created by others. When it comes to deliberate practice, the individual is always dependent on others – teachers, coaches, resources prepared by others, and so on. The embrace and practice of distributed leadership in the workplace is undoubtedly social in nature, as well, for it brings together individuals that may or may not otherwise get to work together, for the purpose of leading jointly. In the process, these individuals are learning and growing together, inspiring each other to perform better, and enhancing the capacity and expertise of both one another and, by natural extension, the organization itself.

Returning for a moment to Ms. Harrigan’s networking and relationship building capabilities as a means to learn, grow, and build expertise, this author, in November 2016, had the opportunity to read the transcript of an interview that his classmate, Robert Moscardini, MBA, had recently conducted with Philip T. Anderson, Ph.D. Dr. Anderson currently serves as the dean of the business and management college at Cardinal Stritch University. Mr. Moscardini had asked Dr. Anderson the same baseline questions that this author had asked of Ms. Harrigan, with perhaps some minor variance. It appears that, from this author’s reading of the transcript, that Dr. Anderson also places a high value on relationship building, networking, and working with others on various teams as a means to flourish intellectually (R. Moscardini, personal communication, November 12, 2016; P. Anderson, personal communication, November, 12, 2016).

Continuing on with networking, more specifically, this author is the founder and facilitator of a business networking group that meets over breakfast at a Milwaukee-area restaurant twice per month. In contrast to many other networking groups in the area, which place a primary emphasis on the exchange of sales leads and referrals, this group takes on more of an education flavor. It acts as a sounding board, or mastermind, for members. Various topics relevant to a wide variety of business owners and professionals, such as marketing, hiring, technology, and training, to name just a few, are regularly explored. Members are encouraged to bring a challenge they are facing in their work, or a goal that they would like to achieve, to meetings, for discussion by the larger group. With this education-centered approach, along with the sharing of challenges faced and goal setting discussions, significant levels of trust and relationships have been built over time among group members. As a result, the sales leads and referrals flow more naturally over time.

The topic of the meeting held on December 19, 2016 was the social media Web site, Twitter. More specifically, the conversation centered on the meaning, significance, and use of its hashtag feature when users of the tool “tweet.” In short, to further highlight the value of meaningful discussions through networking and relationship building as a tool to learn and grow expertise, this author, he contends, has built considerable expertise over a period of nearly 12 years of deliberate practice in the realm of online marketing. Over this timeframe, he has assisted businesses, community service clubs, non-profits, and a variety of projects in their online marketing efforts, including social media publicity, press release writing and distribution, search engine optimization (SEO), and other forms of Web content. He also regularly maintains his own blog, However, in the spirit of continuous improvement and lifelong learning, there is always something new to learn, and there is always room for growth. And so it was the case for this author during this particular meeting. By engaging with other group members in this discussion, he learned several things about Twitter’s hashtag feature in relationship to various search engines, namely Google, that he had previously not known. Armed with this new knowledge, this author can be even more effective in his online marketing work, whether for clients that he may take on, or for his own personal projects.

So far, the discussion on the social nature of individual learning has highlighted individuals actively engaging with one another in order to learn and grow. But what about individuals learning alone? Does this not contradict this author’s previous assertions, then, that individual learning is always social in nature? This author contends that a contradiction does not exist. To conclude this argument, let us take into consideration an individual that is attempting to learn something at the moment all alone, with no one else around. The book or article that he is reading quietly to himself; the musical instrument that she is practicing on, perhaps with an instructional book handy, but maybe not; the personal reflection and pondering that he is engaged in right now, perhaps with a pen and paper, but maybe not; the documentary or video lecture that she is viewing; the tools he’s working with in his shop class after school has ended for the day; the math problems she is quietly working on out of a textbook – all of these things made by, provided by, or framed within the context of others. Learning is always social, and without the presence and contributions of other individuals, individual learning simply is not possible.

Conclusions and Recommendations for Leaders

In closing, this author asserts that deliberate practice, based on the findings of Ericsson et al. (1993) and reinforced by both Daley (1999) and Frontier and Mielke (2016), is needed for an individual to truly be able to build expertise in a field. He is also convinced that individual learning is actually social in nature. Therefore, by extension, deliberate practice becomes social in nature, as well, since individuals must work with others, either directly or indirectly, in order to build up their own capacity and acquire expertise. At the organizational level, this author argues that the application of distributed leadership best creates the necessary conditions and sets the tone for an organization truly dedicated to fostering learning, growth, and the attainment of expertise. Returning to a point made by this author in his introductory comments, all of these factors reach far beyond the individual organization devoted to learning and growth to positively impact whole societies and economies.


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