Book Review by Dan Coughlin



Development of Professional Expertise: Toward Measurement of Expert Performance and Design of Optimal Learning Experiences

(Cambridge University Press 2009) Edited by K Anders Ericsson

Value for the reader:

Anders Ericsson has made an extraordinary lifetime commitment to understanding and teaching the concept of expert performance. He explains the expert performance approach in this way:

“In the expert performance approach, investigators identify those individuals (expert performers) who exhibit superior performance on tasks that capture the essence of expertise in the critical domain… Once tasks with superior performance have been identified in everyday life, then the next step in the expert performance approach involves the design of tasks that can reproduce the superior expert performance in the laboratory. Repeated elicitation of the superior performance on representative tasks permits the application of standard cognitive methods to analyze the mechanisms that mediate experts? superior performance… The expert performance approach involves the identification of critical situations, where an immediate action needs to be taken, and where the correct action can be assessed after the fact. These critical situations can then be presented, for instance, as videos or simulations, with the requirement of immediate action to experts and less skilled performers to let them generate their best action. By presenting a sequence of these representative tasks and recording the speed and accuracy of generated actions, it has been possible to capture objective performance in different domains.” (Page 7.)

In his earlier books he spoke about the importance of deliberate practice over an extended number of years in developing world-class performers in sports, games, and the fine arts. He dedicates an entire chapter that he wrote, Chapter 18, to the use of deliberate practice in developing expertise in the professions. This is a valuable chapter for business managers because a primary difference between managers and the earlier individuals he researched is in the role they perform. Managers do intangible things to organize and influence a group of people to achieve results. Chess players and memory experts do tangible things to directly produce results. Consequently, an expert chess player can give feedback on what a chess move has produced. A manger’s actions are harder to evaluate because their net impact in terms of results may not be seen for weeks, months, or even years.

In Development of Professional Expertise he extends his research to a variety of industries such as medicine, education, business, and the military. Rather than just relying on his own research, Ericsson brings in more than 30 contributing authors in this book who have developed expertise on the topics they write about. This book also dives into how to select individuals, develop individuals, design learning experiences, assess the effectiveness of the learning experiences, and select the teachers who develop the performers.

The primary value of this book is in the breadth and depth of practical ideas it offers on how to develop the professional expertise of employees in any industry. Rather than focusing on length of experience, standardized tests, or peer and supervisor surveys as the critical factors for understanding extraordinary performances, this book looks at the methods that produced great performances and the objective means of measuring those performances.

I define a manager as the person responsible for the results of a group effort. Here are a variety of examples of practical takeaways from Development of Professional Expertise on how managers can develop expert performers:

  • Deliberate practice includes identifying the critical tasks of the employee’s role, and then having the employee practice simulations of those tasks, gather feedback from a trained observer, make adjustments, and repeat this process over and over. (Pp 8-9) In essence, deliberate practice is “representative training with feedback.” (Page 11) Deliberate practice is one of the common themes through all of the methods in this book for developing professional expertise.

    I call deliberate practice “sustained thought-filled practice” because it gets the participant involved in thinking before, during, and after the representative activity and repeats this process over an extended period of time.

  • Chapter Two discusses at length the importance of “engagement simulation” as the critical factor for improving military performance. Essentially, this involved having large numbers of U.S. military members train against elite military personnel in simulations of actual war activities. This was carried out at the NTC (National Training Center). After each simulation there was a “no-holds-barred after-action review (AAR)”. Every member of the simulated activity was expected to honestly assess the situation and express ideas on how to improve performance. The actual performance in real military situations was dramatically improved for those members who attended the engagement simulations and after-activity reviews versus those who did not.

    How can you create simulations of the critical tasks for each role in your organization? How can you get large numbers of your employees to “engage” with your top-performing employees and then create after-activity reviews to identify practical insights to improve performance? This may sound expensive and time consuming, but the dramatic improvement on actual performance could very well be worth it.

    Over time the U.S. military has moved many of these live engagement simulations to computer-generated simulations. This has proved enormously successful. The two great challenges with live engagement simulations are the cost of creating a model of a real situation and the need to repeat this type of training every 45 days because of skill atrophy. This type of training is explained in-depth in Chapter 10.

  • Chapter Three discusses another form of improving performance called “cognitive apprenticeship.” Briefly, this means the manager/teacher models the thought processes that generate outstanding performances, explains them to the employees/students, and then guides them through using these processes. Over time the manager/teacher gradually reduces the assistance they provide and the employee/student gains mastery over the thought processes. This teaching can be done in live interactions or by using computer-generated instruction. The emphasis here is on improving performance by focusing on how to think as opposed to concentrating on what to do. A wide variety of examples of this type of performance development are explained in the book.
  • The book then moves the discussion to the development and assessment of leadership skills in Chapter Four. Leadership is broadly defined as “the exercise of social influence.” Chapter 21 focuses on developing expertise in the management of people. These two chapters provide thought-provoking concepts.

    For example, in Chapter Four it is suggested that there are five processing activities that are critically important for an individual to be an effective leader. These five processing activities are scanning, analysis, forecasting, evaluation and reflection, and planning. The implication is that the primary skill of leadership is thinking. That’s an interesting thought because I’ve always focused on the primary skill of leadership as influencing. However, this chapter makes a compelling point that leaders come in a wide variety of personalities and that none of those are prerequisites to being an effective leader. The implied prerequisites are these five processing activities, which in turn enhance the leader’s ability to effectively influence people toward a desired end result.

    Chapter 21 provides an interesting discussion on the pluses and minuses of case-based instruction for developing managers. Specifically, it discusses the use of case studies at the Harvard University MBA program. I found this to be a useful discussion. It explains that the primary problem of case studies is the students do not develop the ability to generalize from the case studies to a variety of other situations. Consequently, every real management situation becomes just another case study for discussion and the offering of opinions. In the end, this chapter primarily points out the deficiencies of current management training methods and suggests that the more effective, but not currently used, method of management development is based on the expert performer approach and the use of deliberate practice. I agree with this assessment. In my opinion too many management classes are filled with theories with little or no mention of practical processes that managers can implement on a regular basis.

  • Two other methods for developing professional expertise explained in the book are acquiring conceptual expertise from modeling (Chapter 16) and using problem-based methods (Chapter 17). Each of these chapters helps the reader understand how to add another valuable tool for developing individual performers. Consequently, a manager now has five approaches to improve his or her performance and/or the performance of his or her group: engagement simulation, cognitive apprenticeship, processing activities, modeling, and problem-based methods. These five methods can be used in isolation or in combination with one another. The book also explained ways to use these methods in live interactions and in computer-simulated experiences.

In addition to explaining how to develop professional expertise in your employees, this book examines three other important topics.

In Chapter One, two powerful methods are provided on how to select the right employees for a given organization. The methods include having candidates for your organization conduct a hands-on work sample and take a work-sample test. The point is that the best way to determine if a potential employee will turn out to be an effective employee is to have the person demonstrate his or her ability on a simulation or question that represents the actual work that will be required of him or her. Rather than taking an abstract test measuring intelligence or general knowledge, the idea is to find out how the person will do in the real work itself.

Chapters 7, 14, and 15 provide insights on how to design optimal learning experiences. Chapters 11 and 20 are about the importance of measuring the value of developing professional expertise. In essence, they are about the same theme, which is that development is only useful if it impacts measurable objective outcomes. Gathering feedback from the attendees after a training session or getting employees to give positive input to their boss does not constitute the achievement of an objective measure. These are simply input about the input in an organization. The only meaningful measure is whether the desired output of the organization was improved: were battles won, did patients survive, and did businesses generate sustainable, profitable growth?

Strengths of the book:

Development of Professional Expertise is by far the most comprehensive book I’ve ever read on how to develop professional expertise and how to measure whether or not it is really happening. This book took on a monumental task and delivered on its stated purpose, “…our goal to find and develop objective measures of professional performance and to identify the training and practice activities that lead to improvements and maintenance of this type of performance.” (Page 10)

My favorite parts of this book were the actual methods for improving performance, which include (as I stated earlier) engagement simulation, cognitive apprenticeship, processing activities, modeling, and problem-based methods. My on-going professional quest is to find ways to improve group performance because I believe groups are the fundamental unit of any organization. No individual creates and delivers value to customers in a vacuum. That value is created and delivered by groups of people. Organizations don’t create new products or services. It is groups within those organizations that create the new products and services. Consequently any methods that can be applied to improve group performance are very valuable in my opinion.
Even though on page three, it says, “The primary focus of this book is on individual performance,” I still believe these methods for improving performance can be applied to groups as well even though it may require some tweaking of the methods.

An additional strength of the book is the breadth of examples and the breadth of authors. This theme of developing professional expertise was looked at from the eyes of more than 30 authors, all of whom seem to know the content of their chapters very well. This enriched the overall perspective that the reader gained from the book. It would be impossible for any one person to have that much breadth of knowledge and experience.

What would have made this book better?

Perhaps due to the enormous scope of the book, its greatest challenges are not in the content of the book, but rather in its format. There is no attempt made to provide ideas in a user-friendly format that would allow the reader to scan a page and readily understand the key ideas in a given chapter. Even the chapters that are reflections on the previous chapters are written in an academic format rather than a user-friendly, practical approach to help the reader visualize the key ideas and remember them easily. This challenge was further exacerbated by the number of authors, each of whom used slightly different ways of making their points.

I think this book has tremendous implications for business managers. However, business managers are very much “on the go and always busy” types of people. Gathering the powerful insights in this book requires a tremendous commitment on the reader’s part to read each section carefully, reflect on its key ideas, and convert those ideas into a format that can then be applied in a real work situation. Consequently, this is a book many readers, including myself, will have to move through very slowly to capture the key ideas and convert them into usable formats for application. Fortunately, the value of the content is well worth the effort required to mine out that value.

Of particular interest to me were the chapters on leadership and management. These two chapters tended to negate current methods for developing managers and leaders because they found no research on objective measurements of leader or manager performance. In other words, they could not find a way to measure the degree that an individual leader or manager affected the end results. Consequently, they questioned whether or not any current methods of leadership and management development are effective. It’s an interesting point, but I think it misses the powerful implication that their methods for improving performance can have for leaders and managers.

For example, engagement simulation and cognitive apprenticeship can be, and should be in my opinion, used on an-going basis in businesses to develop leaders and managers. Just because we’ll never know objectively exactly how much an individual leader or manager affected a desired result, we can objectively measure the performance of the group that the individual guided. Over time the group’s results will give us a good idea of the effectiveness of the individual in charge of that group.

I encourage you to read Development of Professional Expertise edited by Anders Ericsson. I believe it will engage your mind and cause you to think how you can develop and measure professional expertise in your employees.

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