Getting to exemplary

My colleague John Howe makes a useful distinction between subject-matter expert and exemplary performer.

Subject-matter experts are often supervisors or specialists who don’t currently do the job for which they’re considered experts.  Exemplary performers (exemplars), by contrast, do do that job, and are recognized as exemplary by peers and by management.

Assimilating subject matterIn real life, management sometimes calls an exemplar a subject-matter expert.  I don’t argue, but I tend to be on my guard.  The very term “subject-matter expert” hints at a subject — a body of knowledge that’s out there, somewhere, one that someone’s going to assimilate.  Or get assimilated by.

If you’re developing training when there are few straightforward answers — the kind of work that concept workers engage in — exemplars are an invaluable resource.

The key is to work with them to focus on challenging, real-life problems that are important or occur frequently.

In other words:

  • Have them identify (and justify) those high-value situations; don’t ask them “what subjects should we include?”
  • Focus on how to apply skill, not on the subject matter.
  • Ask the exemplars to apply existing procedures and rules to realistic problems; don’t assume that the stated approaches are either correct or complete.

Where subject-matter stays?At a government agency, John and I worked with exemplars to develop training for a newcomer who’d just taken over a project.  They described criteria that should apply to certain kinds of decisions.  Then, we asked them to work through similar decisions they’d actually made.

This process almost always reveals “criteria” that no one uses.  It also tends to reveal different but acceptable approaches: a lot of surprises and quite a bit of “yes, that makes sense, and that would work.”  Those discussions also produced finer-grained criteria or considerations.

One caution: as John points out, problems that exemplars find interesting are often peripheral.  They don’t happen often, and so stand out.  Thus the need for grounding: “Is this the kind of problem that the (newcomer, in this case) is likely to face?  Is it one that’s important in the first 6 – 12 months?”

We built several case-based workshops on some aspect of taking up a new project: how to avoid micromanaging, how to deal with requests for information (a potential time sink), how to evaluate budget proposals.

Starting from basic principles and background material, each participant created his own response to a case, then compared that with those of teammates.  Teams developed and reported a group response.  Finally, a pair of exemplars (who worked the same cases during the workshop) shared their responses.  Most cases involved more than one round of individual and group work.

When there’s no single right answer, you need to work with principles and rules of thumb.  You need to compare your judgment with that of others and to reflect on the differences.  And you need to do these things more than once.

So the workshops gave new project managers limited but concentrated practice in solving high-value challenges that appear randomly during the first year on the job.  The “school solutions” were created by exemplars, not by instructional designers.

There’s no easy way to do this, but the results can be… exemplary.

“Borg baby” photo (it’s just a hearing test) by hikingviking.
Hotel Borg photo by bods / Andrew Bowden.

3 thoughts on “Getting to exemplary

  1. Hi Dave! And hi to John as well!

    I agree very much with your post – and have been using exemplars (Master Performers)in my ISD/ID methods since the late 1970s and early 1980’s – in fact my PACT Processes (covered in my lean-ISD book) distinguish between SMEs and MPs and how their knowledge/insights can leverage instructional design.

    John saw this demonstrated dozens and dozens of times at GM where he and I were involved in a 5 year effort (1995-2000) to implement the PACT Processes (changed to MC/MI by GM) that lasted the first 5 Presidentsw of GMU during those 5 years.

    Thanks for your continously great posts!


  2. Thanks, Guy. John is ardent in this approach — in some ways, he doesn’t buy into the idea that you teach things; rather, that in settings like this, you can work with exemplars to set up practical exercises from which people learn.

    As you know as well as anyone, Tom Gilbert was another strong believer in the concept of exemplars. I was very struck by his PIP — the potential to improve performance — and the argument that followed from it: the greater the gap between the performance of exemplars and the performance of the average person, the easier it is to bring about improvement.

    Maybe that’s fodder for another post…

  3. Dave and Guy –

    Actually, Guy mistakes me for a GM manager who worked in this arena during the days when I was at Ford.

    The GM, John Howe and I have never met. He may not even know of me, but I’ve encountered references to him and his work repeatedly over the years.

    But as Dave says, and Guy confirms from his own experience and, apparently that of my GM namesake, an expert practitioner approach to diagnosis, design and delivery can be a very useful one.

    For me, the “rules of practice” that guide expert performance are the most central and interesting phenomena in the world of those attempting to learn how to do some aspect of a job competently and/or to arrange deliberate learning of that sort. The character of such rules, namely that they are inescapably applications and not just cognitive creatures. gives the lie the widespread belief that knowledge — “subject matter,” if you will, is all.

    Tom Gilbert’s insight that most expert practitioner performance is not based on special abilities, but rather on skills which can often be identified and spread successfully across an entire population of performers is a real and wonderful example of actual “leveraging.”

    I’ve written something more extensive on “The Notion of a Rule,” for my own “Trainer’s Notebook” blog

    but its not ready yet for publication. That’s why my most prominent link here is to another blog in which I pursue and exhibit my oriental rug collecting neurosis…

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