Overcoming the Four Barriers to Expertise – Part 1

Long ago, in a book titled, “Increasing Human Efficiency in Business,” Walter Dill Scott identified the four most important factors that cause skill advancement plateaus. While this book was first published in 1910, the lessons remain valuable and directly relevant to us today. In fact, I believe they are more relevant for IT professionals than many other professionals.

Here are the four factors that have the most important influence on skill advancement:

  • The enthusiasm for the topic or skill is based upon a current fad or trend.
  • All easy improvements have been made.
  • A period of incubation is required in which the new skills and ideas have time to develop.
  • Voluntary attention is difficult to sustain for a long period of time.

 

I’ve rephrased each of the four factors in order to make them more current and more specifically applicable to technology professionals. Let’s look at the first two of these so that we may understand how to overcome the barriers that they represent. We’ll look at the next two in a later post.

Fads and Trends

Right now, virtualization is hot. Virtual servers, virtual desktops, virtual networks and even virtual employees. You can’t read an issue of eWeek or Network World without finding an article on something related to virtualization. You could definitely say that it is a current fad or trend. If you choose to become an expert in virtualization based solely on the fact that it is a hot topic right now, how will you continue to find motivation for it when it is no longer the newest thing?

If I attempt to become an expert in a topic based on the fact that it is currently popular, I am more likely to plateau early on in the process. The key factor here is motivation. My motivation was not based on a true interest in the technology but on an awareness that popularity breeds use and that this popularity may benefit me.

To overcome this barrier, you must find new sources of motivation. Answer the following questions to help you focus your energies in the right areas:

  • What excites me about this technology?
  • What information, when learned, did I most want to share with someone else?
  • How can this technology continue to bring value?
  • What are the changes coming in this technology in the next 12 months, 24 months, 60 months?
  • In what new ways can I apply my existing knowledge of the technology?
  • What benefits will I acquire if I learn even more?

The Next Step is Too Hard

Once all easy improvements have been made, the real challenge begins. Many technical professionals feel like giving up when they get to this level. What does this level look like? Let me give you two examples – each focused on a different technology:

  • You understand how to install and configure a TCP/IP-based network. You can configure subnet masks, but you don’t really understand them. You can enable or disable ports, but you don’t really understand how those ports are utilized by the networked applications. You can configure a router, but you don’t really understand how routing tables are updated and maintained. You may be defined as a professional TCP/IP administrator, but you are short of the expert status.
  • You know how to implement a wireless access point or router so that users can gain access to the network. You can enable WPA-Enterprise by providing the needed RADIUS server properties, but you don’t really understand how the RADIUS server is used and the flow of the authentication process. You can install multiple access points so that users can roam from one to another, but when users complain that they are losing their connections with an FTP server when they roam, you don’t know how to solve the problem. You may be defined as a wireless professional, but the wireless networking expert status eludes you.

 

Do these examples give you a feel for the “all easy improvements have been made” plateau? At this point, with TCP/IP, you have to begin studying sub-netting at a very technical level. You’ll have to understand how the thirty-two bits that make up an IPv4 address are actually used. You’ll need to understand the three-way handshake used to establish a TCP connection. These are just a few nuggets you’ll need to master in order to become a TCP/IP expert. As you can see, they can seem quite daunting and many will give up.

Here are three tips to help you overcome this barrier:

  • Chunk the task. Break the topic into smaller chunks. For example, with wireless roaming, you may choose to simply discover the names of different roaming techniques on the first day. A few days later you can learn about one of these techniques and then another on a different day. As you read about the techniques, take notes about knowledge subsets you wish to explore further. Learn about those smaller knowledge domains on yet another day. Chunking can break the task down so that it doesn’t seem so daunting.
  • Define hard. Seriously. You can make a task easier by defining what you really mean. Sometimes we think that a task or knowledge domain is hard because it is big. Sometimes we think that a task or knowledge domain is hard because there are complex interdependencies. And there are other reasons too. Define what you really mean and then tackle that issue. For example, if you really mean that the task is big, you can use chunking.
  • Explain what you already know to someone who doesn’t know it. You will notice that their eyes gloss over. They stop you a short way in and tell you that they don’t understand. What good does this exercise do you? It shows that what you already know is “hard” for someone else. You learned what you do know – you can learn what you don’t know.

 

I’ll post some suggestions for overcoming the remaining two barriers later today.

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