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Sunday, 21 November 2010

From Experience to Expertise? Mentoring is the Answer!

I had the honour on Friday last of being booked to speak to a group of PhD students and staff at Salford University Method - Philosophy Friday in fact.  The subject was Turning Experience into Expertise and it sparked a great deal of interesting and scholarly debate.

The overall premise asked the question of what is needed to ensure that any accumulated experience is transformed into some form of expertise whether it be a child riding a bicycle after discarding the stabilisers and falling off a few times, or the expertise of highly trained specialists developed over a period of years of experience.

The point was made that experience without learning is a waste, and also that twenty years' experience isn't always what it seems.  It may, in fact, be one year's experience replicated twenty times. 

The general consensus was that unless the period of experience was accompanied by an auto-didactic approach plus a level of humility which allowed learning from others, then it is unlikely that true expertise would develop.

There were one or two really excellent questions.  One asked what is it that encourages the process of developing expertise out of the accumulated experience and the answer seemed to be that it must be accompanied by a genuine desire to learn.  That is, of course, almost self evident, but is it a formal process or an instinctive one?

Being clever after the event, I have realised that one of the processes which assists enormously is mentoring.   If developing expertise is a learning process then any help in encouraging and uncovering the gems of learning is to be welcomed.

The job of the mentor is not to advise or to criticise or to suggest: those are consultancy functions.   The mentor has to ask pertinent (and sometimes impertinent) questions to uncover what has been learned of value and to encourage the individual to develop and enhance the experience.  In conducting more than 3,000 mentoring sessions in the past few years, I have long ago realised that the client has all the answers: it needs careful questioning to bring them out.

It is also necessary to decide why the expertise has been acquired and developed.  In an academic environment, expertise can be developed for its own sake with no apparent purpose in mind.  In the environment which we in business ,expertise is usually specifically directed to bringing the greater good to the business, the individual and the community in which the business operates.

We didn't really discuss this on Friday: perhaps the subject should have been Turning Experience into Expertise and then Taking Action.  With that title I think we would still be there!

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