Sometimes failure is not an option. When a malevolent megalomaniac threatens to vaporize your empire, you send in your James Bond—not a raw recruit.
In business, when it’s vital to break into a complex new market, you send in a veteran who knows the territory to close the deal. You rely on an expert who has been there because he knows how to spot the signs and figure out what’s going on as if by second nature. Until recently, extensive experience was the only way to become an expert. It took decades to develop and hone one’s craft—you couldn’t teach it in a classroom. That’s about to change.
Several months ago, I talked with two knowledge management and research companies in Singapore: Straights Knowledge and Pebble Road. These two companies had been commissioned to help small and medium businesses become experts in doing business in China.
Foreign businesspeople new to China have an extraordinarily difficult time learning to sense and respond to the culture’s complexities. They don’t need more information—they need to be able to read what’s going on so they will know how to use the information they’ve got. Until now, no one could figure out how to transfer the insight of experienced foreign entrepreneurs.
What separates novices from experts is the way they size things up. Experts assess a situation with less information than novices. In his new book, “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell calls this capability “thin-slicing” or “rapid cognition.” Designers started by teasing out the “thin slices” that experts pay attention to when making rapid decisions. They elicited narratives from China hands, focusing them on context rather than conclusions. The narratives fell into six themes: strategy, environment, people, culture, law and fraud.
Next, the designers conducted extensive, confidential interviews with seasoned professionals. They asked them to imagine challenging but typical scenarios and to display them on a table using small figures and props to represent roles and relationships (situational context). The experts explained the relationships displayed (social context). They also played the scenarios forward and backward, answering questions such as “Let’s imagine it turns out well/badly—what would the situation look like then?” (teleological context).
The designers poured this content into six shell scenarios. They included representative businesses going into China (trading companies, manufacturing companies, service companies), the situational themes and a variety of geographic regions. Narrative techniques created by Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Centre helped transform the raw material into realistic stories. Methods borrowed from screenwriting brought the stories to life. The result was a “game pack” of scenarios, each containing dozens of unfolding vignettes.
A half-dozen or more novices can work though the scenarios collaboratively, making individual judgments along the way and learning from what their colleagues deem important. One game takes a moderately experienced group three hours or more to complete, but the game is best played with diverse levels of experience. Forcing the group to agree on their reading of the situation before moving on requires them to explain their divergences, which in itself provides a high level of complex, highly contextualized knowledge.
These decision games repeatedly test a person’s judgment and knowledge while allowing them to engage with business colleagues in a complex and ambiguous environment. While they are learning about a particular domain, participants also gain insight into the perspectives, styles and capabilities of their colleagues.
Think about it: Exposing novices to multiple ways of seeing and sizing up situations is how expertise is built. Switching the focus from teaching content to challenging contexts intensifies learning. Participants become so involved, they don’t even break for coffee.
Organizations need more savvy, can-do experts to deal with an increasingly complex world. In fact, decision games are a preferred method of developing experts in the U.S. Marines. These high-impact methods also accelerate the decision-making capabilities of high-tech sales stars.
CLOs recognize that training the corporate SWAT team takes more than plain old vanilla training. Expect to see more programs for high-potential performers that use thin-slicing to build expertise—fast.
Jay Cross is CEO of eLearningForum, founder of Internet Time Group and a fellow of meta-learninglab.com. For more information, e-mail Jay at email@example.com.
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