Learning expert thinking processe...
Learning expert thinking processes: using KM to structure the development of expertise Christine van Winkelen and Richard McDermott Abstract Purpose ��� This paper seeks to develop understanding of how competent practitioners develop into experts through learning expert thinking processes and how knowledge management initiatives can be used to structure this development. Design/methodology/approach ��� A literature review-derived research model underpinned the semi-structured interviews with 21 acknowledged experts from a wide variety of disciplines and sectors. A qualitative exploratory research design was used to study how the experts go about developing other professionals in the field through showing them how they learn themselves and making visible their own thinking processes. The implications for KM programs were developed in conjunction with KM practitioners. Findings ��� The experts used various methods to make their thinking visible through demonstration of practice and direction of structured learning activities. KM���s contribution to this form of expertise development lies in structuring approaches to making work in progress more visible (through technology and process) and through introducing a coaching framework that enables and supports reflection on practice. Research limitations/implications ��� The specific context of expertise development that has been studied is those situations where generalized principles and explicit knowledge cannot be readily captured in artifacts. Further research is needed to show how this can be combined with other approaches to developing and retaining expertise. Confirmatory research is also needed to refine and further validate the proposed recommendations for KM practice. Practical implications ��� The paper prepares the ground for integrating an important aspect of expertise development within KM programs. Originality/value ��� The paper extends KM���s contribution to expertise retention and development to include structured support for the development of expert thinking processes. Keywords Knowledge management, Skills, Apprenticeships, Thinking Paper type Research paper 1. Introduction With rapidly developing global competition, a severe economic recession and the generation of baby boomers about to retire, many organizations are concerned about losing professional expertise. Expertise, by definition, is about knowing how to handle the more difficult problems in a field. With ever-increasing pressure to find new ways to reduce costs and to provide better products and services, developing and retaining expertise in organizations matters more than ever. It has been proven that experts have to work at becoming experts, with many studies of elite performance across very different domains of expertise (such as chess and playing musical instruments) (Bloom, 1985 in Ericsson, 2006b, p. 13). The translation of these principles into the design of workplace learning activities with the provision of appropriately structured guidance and support for potential experts is still an emerging field in the world of business and management (see for example Ericsson et al., 2007 McCall and Hollenbeck, 2008). DOI 10.1108/13673271011059527 VOL. 14 NO. 4 2010, pp. 557-572, Q Emerald Group Publishing Limited, ISSN 1367-3270 j JOURNAL OF KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT j PAGE 557 Christine van Winkelen and Richard McDermott are based at the Henley Business School, University of Reading, Henley on Thames, UK. This research project was carried out by a Working Group of knowledge managers from member organizations of the Henley KM Forum. Public and private sector organizations were included. Expert advisers and academics also participated. Thanks are also given to Stephen Clark from LILA and Dr Nick Woolf for helpful discussions. Feedback from the reviewers is also gratefully acknowledged. Received: 12 August 2009 Accepted 16 March 2010
Expertise involves both considerable specialized knowledge in a domain and an extensive repertoire of skills and heuristics that supports its application in practice (Hoffman and Lintern, 2006, p. 217). More than a decade ago, Klein (1997, p. 347) argued that the most useful way to help people achieve expertise is to ������teach them how to learn like experts������. The very nature of expertise (specialized knowledge) and how it develops (learning mechanisms) makes it of interest to organizational knowledge managers. The Henley Knowledge Management Forum in the UK has more than forty private and public sector member organizations that seek to learn together about aspects of knowledge management through workshops and collaborative research activities. Following a preliminary broad study of the mechanisms by which organizations are retaining and developing expertise (van Winkelen and McDermott, 2008), it was clear that there are many situations in which experts pass on generalized principles and explicit knowledge to others through the creation of various forms of artifact. However, it was evident that there are other situations where expert knowledge cannot readily be captured and passed on to others in this way. Instead various approaches are being adopted to expose colleagues to the reflective learning processes, thinking and insights of experts, with the more formal approaches including structured interviews, the development of simulations and master classes. It was also clear from the study that few methods were widely adopted and that these were rarely embedded into the business practices and knowledge management programs of the organizations. This resulted in the decision to focus further research more specifically on understanding how experts develop colleagues by sharing their learning and thinking processes with them. Within the expertise literature, a process of ������thinking along������ describes the cognitive work of engaging in solving a problem with someone else (Berends et al., 2004). The proposition upon which this paper is founded is that knowledge management offers the potential to ������amplify������ benefits from the natural processes of expertise development through ������thinking along������ that are inevitably occurring in organizations as people work together on issues. The findings of an exploratory applied research project are reported. This was based on semi-structured interviews with twenty one experts and an exploration of the implications of the findings with practicing knowledge managers. In addition to identifying issues for further research, the conclusions suggest ways in which knowledge managers can integrate this particular aspect of expertise retention and development into a knowledge management program. The main contribution is in extending KM���s involvement in expertise retention and development to include the thinking processes experts use and identifying two specific areas to focus on within KM programs. 2. Literature review 2.1 Understanding expertise The study of expertise is extensive and ongoing. Research into judgment and decision-making processes, how we learn, and technology based artificial intelligence/expert systems, amongst many others, all contribute to a rich and growing understanding of the nature of expertise and how it develops (see for example Ericsson et al., 2006, for an overview). Expertise involves having both specialized knowledge of a domain and the skills to use that knowledge to solve problems (Bereiter and Scardamalia, 1993). Ericsson et al. (2007) describe expertise as the ability to act, not just to know. Action as the visible sign of expertise connects the expertise and decision-making literatures. Decision-making starts with sensemaking to identify the need or opportunity for a decision to be made, is followed by the identification of possible solutions or the creation of new knowledge to generate and identify options, with finally a choice being made between alternative course of action and implementation of the consequent action (Choo and Johnston, 2004 Simon, 1960 in Courtney, 2001). Experts are used to make specialized decisions in organizations and the study of the sensemaking, option generation and choice processes are all aspects of the study of expertise. PAGE 558 j JOURNAL OF KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT j VOL. 14 NO. 4 2010
One body of research, ������naturalistic decision-making������ (NDM), revolves round the extremes of expert-based decision-making: The focus of NDM research is on expert practitioners trying to figure out what to do under difficult circumstances. The need to understand decision making in the context of time pressure, uncertainty, ill-defined goals and high personal stakes was a major impetus for the emergence of NDM (Ross et al., 2006, p. 403). NDM research has provided organizational decision making with insights into how individuals and groups use pattern matching, story telling and argumentation for sensemaking, situation awareness and selection between choices (Lipshitz et al., 2006). In addition to the research into ������intuitive������ decisions based on the mental simulation and pattern recognition processes derived to explain the NDM processes of experts (Akinci and Sadler-Smith, 2009), other research is attempting to understand some of these apparently instantaneous decision processes using technology developments that allow neuroscientists to watch the brain in action as it deliberates and decides. There is already evidence of changing brain activity levels following practice (Hill and Schneider, 2006) demonstrating a physical manifestation of developing expertise. One view of the nature of intelligence synthesized from a variety of research sources argues that the neocortex of the brain combines information from the senses with retrieved memories stored as patterns to continuously predict what will happen next, attention being given to what is registered as different from those expectations (Hawkins and Blakeslee, 2004, pp. 86-88). The experience and practice of experts is thought to provide them with more reference patterns, as well as higher order patterns of memories as ������structures of structures������ that speed up memory retrieval to formulate and evaluate alternative scenarios. These predictive brain activities are far from fully conscious, explaining why experts may not be able to explain their thinking processes when asked. The psychological school of research into decision making starts from the cognitive mechanisms people have developed to cope with their environment ��� the heuristics that speed up decision making but have potential traps associated with them (Tetlock, 1991). Here, the predictive thinking patterns that underpin the heuristics risk introducing bias, examples being the confirming evidence bias (seeking information that supports own point of view and avoiding information that does not) and the sunk-cost bias (making choices that justify past choices) (Hammond et al., 2006). Experts, as with all decision makers, are at risk of cognitive bias. In organizations, it has been suggested that experts have a particular role to play in relation to certain kinds of decisions. Snowden and Boone (2007) categorize decisions according to the extent to which a link between cause and effect can be found or not, and if it can, how easy it is to make that link. Their ������domain of experts������ describes complicated decisions for which cause and effect relationships can be discovered, though they are not immediately apparent. Expert diagnosis is required and more than one right answer is possible. It has been recognized that there are risks if experts become over confident in this process, with some calling for those who seek the judgments of experts to support their decisions to remain skeptical and challenging (Cassidy and Buede, 2009). Traditionally, the apprenticeship model was used to pass on skills from one generation to the next, supporting the development of competent practice and potentially (though not always), expertise. The Guild system was established to manage the process and maintain standards. Terminology developed to describe stages of development, key ones being (Hoffman et al., 1995): B Novice. A probationer with some minimal exposure to the domain. B Apprentice. A student undergoing a program of instruction, conventionally living with and assisting someone at a higher level. B Journeyman. Someone who can perform work unsupervised, though under orders. Experienced and reliable with a recognized level of competence. VOL. 14 NO. 4 2010 j JOURNAL OF KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT j PAGE 559