Through 6 research-based guidelines, this article explains why it is important to acquire complex problem-solving in today’s job environment and how training experts can design a training curriculum that ensures acquiring complex problem-solving skills in any complex domain.
Global jobs, especially the technical ones are becoming complex day by day. Complex jobs are the jobs that are characterized by the complexity of the decision making, complexity of problems, complexity of problem-solving, complexity and ambiguity of the tasks, uncertainty in the environment, and complexity of interactions it entails. Task complexity is another key factor to determine job complexity. TaskManagementGuide website defines task complexity as “a collection of properties inherited by a task. These properties (like a priority, due date, duration, and urgency) define the difficulty of this task and its significance to a performer (a person who should do the task)”.
Several jobs require employees to handle critical and complex technical issues almost on daily basis. The job ranges from problem-solving responsibility being a part of the job to the main job itself. Examples of such jobs are Equipment repair service, internal organ medical surgery, Network and database administration, Cyber security, Aircraft maintenance, Airplane piloting, Oil and gas exploration, Air Traffic Control, Civil engineering, Biomedical Engineering, Strategic military operations, Satellite and rocket control, Space and astronautically missions to name a few (Onetoonline, n.d). All the complex jobs have one thing in common – complex problems. What makes a problem complex? The complexity of a problem is a function of the number of issues, functions, or variables involved in the problem; the number of interactions among those issues, functions, or variables; and the predictability of the behavior of those issues, functions, or variables (Xu et.al, 2007). Jonassen (2000) maintains that dynamicity is another dimension of complexity. In dynamic problems, the relationships among variables or factors change over time. Changes in one factor may cause variable changes in other factors. The more intricate these interactions, the more difficult is any solution.
These kinds of jobs require employees to have the ability to resolve problems of any complexity and order quickly and efficiently. In today’s environment, employees are expected to possess proficiency in top-order problem solving and troubleshooting skills. General strategies for developing expertise in other contexts are seen to be not working effectively in such jobs. Developing the expertise of individuals and developing it faster is an extremely challenging task.
Complex Problem Solving (CPS)
Technical problems are typically very complex in nature due to the nature of the domain and far more reaching effects than business problems. This goes beyond the general problem solving we talk in day-to-day life. There is a well-developed body of knowledge called Complex Problem Solving (CPS). This moment was originally started in Europe. For those who find CPS as a new term, let me define it briefly:
Quesada et.al (2005) presented a compact characterization of complex problem solving based on Frensch and Funke (1995b):“Complex problem solving tasks are situations that are: (1) dynamic because early actions determine the environment in which subsequent decision must be made, and features of the task environment may change independently of the solver’s actions; (2) time dependent, because decisions must be made at the correct moment in relation to environmental demands; and (3) complex, in the sense that most variables are not related to each other in a one-to-one manner. In these situations, the problem requires not one decision, but a long series, in which early decisions condition later ones. For a task that is changing continuously, the same action can be definitive at moment t1 and useless at moment t2.”
There is a distinction between CPS and general problem-solving. Some researchers believe that complex problem-solving competency may not be an extension of the general problem-solving process to complex situations; rather it is a separate competency (OECD, 2003). According to Brehmer (1995), “Complex problem solving is concerned with people’s ability to handle tasks that are complex, dynamic (in the sense that they change both autonomously) and as a consequence of the decision-maker’s actions), and opaque (in the sense that the decision-maker may not be able to directly see the tasks states or structure).” On the other hand, General Problem solving refers to a state of desire for reaching a definite ‘goal’ from a present condition that either is not directly moving toward the goal, is far from it, or needs more complex logic for finding a missing description of conditions or steps toward the goal (Robertson, 2001, p2). There is some evidence (though not conclusive) that complex problem-solving competency is a separate construct and not just the application of “normal” problem‐solving processes to complex situations.
With technological advances, more and more complex problems surfaced which are technical in nature. Such problems require different strategies termed troubleshooting. Troubleshooting is a form of problem-solving, often applied to repair a failed product or process. In general, troubleshooting is the identification of or diagnosis of “trouble” in the management flow of a corporation or a system caused by a failure of some kind. Troubleshooters then search for actions that will efficiently eliminate the discrepancy. It is believed that troubleshooting requires highly specific strategies too. In the technical domain, troubleshooting refers to searching for the most likely cause of a fault in a larger set of possible causes (Schaafstal et al., 2000). Wikipedia states it as “a logical, systematic search for the source of a problem so that it can be solved, and so the product or process can be made operational again.” Troubleshooters then search for actions that will efficiently eliminate the discrepancy. Within complex problem space, troubleshooting is also considered a separate construct in itself but highly integrated with CPS. In several instances of complex problems mainly in the technical domain, complex problem solving and troubleshooting works hand to hand. Troubleshooting is seen to require highly specific strategies over and above general and complex problem-solving.
Acquiring CPS skills
Both complex problem-solving and troubleshooting are complex processes that require a range of cognitive and metacognitive skills to be used by the problem solver to identify and resolve a problem. Complex technical problem solving and troubleshooting remains complex, even for highly experienced individuals. Complex Problem solving and troubleshooting is a complex process that requires a range of cognitive and metacognitive skills to be used by the problem solver to identify and resolve a problem. Research has shown that there are several competencies and strategies which are used by proficient problem solvers and those are generally acquired by them while working on the issues. Lyn (2011) lists the abilities learners need to deal with complex systems for success beyond the school: “Such abilities include: constructing, describing, explaining, manipulating, and predicting complex systems; working on multi-phase and multi-component component projects in which planning, monitoring, and communicating are critical for success; and adapting rapidly to ever-evolving conceptual tools (or complex artifacts) and resources (Gainsburg,2006; Lesh & Doerr, 2003; Lesh & Zawojewski, 2007)”.
Complexity is one of the several factors which may result in several levels of performance for the same task and thus can affect how a person is deemed competent, proficient and expert. During learning, the novice completes a simple version of tasks and as skill increases, he can move to more and more complex tasks. By acquiring more skills, the learner gains skill and becomes skillful in more complex tasks, and can process several factors at the same time. Merrill, (2006) states that “adequate measurement of performance in complex real-world tasks requires that we can detect increments in performance demonstrating gradually increased skill in completing a whole complex task or solving a problem.”
Complex technical problem solving and troubleshooting remains complex, even for highly experienced individuals. However, experts have the advantage of experience. For example, expert troubleshooters have more well-developed cognitive schemas and strategic knowledge than novices’ schemas do (Chi, Glaser, & Rees, 1982; Larkin, McDermott, Simon, & Simon, 1980). When troubleshooting familiar systems, experts can use the prior knowledge they gained from experience. They form a schema of their mental representation during their experience. When faced with unfamiliar systems troubleshooting, their prior schema and mental representation help them to quickly develop a mental representation of that system faster than less experienced troubleshooters can (Egan & Schwartz, 1979). These sophisticated mental representations are used by proficient troubleshooters to reason why a system may not be working. There are several competencies and strategies which are used by experienced problem solvers and those are generally acquired by them while working on the issues. Proficient troubleshooters have well-developed metacognitive knowledge and tested strategies like a structured approach to troubleshooting (Schaafstal et al., 2000).