A few weeks back I was honored to have a conversation with Dr. Dee Andrews regarding his experience with accelerating proficiency in the military and how that could be translated to the organizational environment.
About Dr. Dee H Andrews: Dr. Dee H. Andrews, is a consultant specializing in training and human factors psychology. He retired as a Senior Scientist in Human Effectiveness Directorate in Air Force Research Laboratory, Arizona. As Senior Scientist, Dr. Andrews was the laboratory’s principal scientific authority for training research. His responsibilities included sustaining technological superiority for training by planning and conducting theoretical and experimental studies. Dr. Andrews has done research in the area of training in distributed environments, instructor-operator station design, performance measurement, command and control, cost-effectiveness, cyber training research, and decay and retention of higher-order cognitive skills. His publications include Readings in Training and Simulation: A 30-Year Perspective, The Learning Organization, and Organizational Simulation and Storytelling as an Instructional Method to name a few. Most recently he co-authored “Accelerated Expertise: Training for High Proficiency in Complex World” with Dr. Robert Hoffman addressing an important challenge of today’s business: The need for people to rapidly acquire the knowledge and skills to perform tasks.
Accelerating Proficiency Vs. Accelerating Expertise
You came from a military background where the challenge of bringing proficiency in soldiers and officers is becoming important with situations changing at a fast pace. Do you think proficiency or expertise could be reasonably accelerated?
Dee Andrews: There is not a lot of research about how to increase retention of skills and there is even less research about how to accelerate learning. You would find some learning theorists who would say accelerated learning is impossible and that we have to go through a certain set of cognitive processes to learn anything. And that it just takes whatever time it takes. While some people may learn faster than other people, you can’t accelerate that rate of learning. It goes as fast as Mother Nature wants it to go and you can’t accelerate it. I disagree with that. I think we can accelerate it.
Organizations want to develop their employees to a high level of proficiency. With time and motivation, they possibly can build their employees to be experts. How do you see this distinction?
Dee Andrews: Not many people in a field will be called experts. We want most of them to be proficient. We want most of them to be at the journeyman level. I like the term journeyman. That I think is a good description of what most organizations are looking for from most of their people. We can’t afford to spend as much time as we need to make people experts in all cases, but we do need to get them at least to the journeyman level.
I think in most organizations while they would need some experts, not everybody has to be an expert, but they should be proficient. I believe that expertise is a scale. It’s not either you have it or you don’t. There is a scale of expertise along which the journeyman is placed. At the far end is the expert. Somewhere on that scale of expertise, everybody should be placed. The scale is driven by the Dreyfus and Dreyfus model in which competency, proficiency, and expertise are basically in a continuum. It’s a continuous scale.
Now we normally think of paying experts more money than we will for, say a journeyman. In some cases, that’s appropriate. We have a very hard problem and we want it solved and the true expert is the only one who is going to be able to solve that and we’ll pay more money. But in most cases, we probably don’t need to pay top dollar to get a proficient person to come and solve the problem. So there is a cost issue involved with this too in terms of how much an organization wants to keep an expert on board or do they hire them on consulting basis.
This is where I think I would agree with some people who would criticize the term accelerating expertise because they would be thinking of the expert pianists, the expert violinists, and the expert brain surgeon. And they would say it just takes 10,000 hours at least of deliberate practice to get to that level and I don’t disagree with that. Saying we’re going to accelerate expertise, I am not sure that’s possible unless you look at it on a continuum basis where we might be moving the person along that scale faster than they would have without some sort of strategy for accelerating the proficiency. My perspective is that if you don’t do the 10,000 hours, you are probably never going to become an expert.
Now, the one thing which is missing in general in both private organizations and in government including the military is that leaders do not make a conscious strategy about how they want to develop the workforce. They just have this notion that we need to train people and we need to make them confident. But beyond that are we looking for 2%, 5%, or 10% of our people to be true experts? Are you going to commit to the 10,000 hours of deliberate practice? And what does that mean for the number of journeymen that we need to be proficient [and not experts yet]? I don’t think that sort of discussion typically takes place at the organizational level.
Above Real-time Simulation Technique
There were several different training techniques that basically originated from military training. Most of their technique in their own silos claims that accelerates learning and accelerates the acquisition of skill. Did you have any thoughts on techniques focused on acquiring the skill a little bit faster?
Dee Andrews: Well in terms of operational skills, there is one form of simulation-based training. This is called above-real-time training. For example, in the case of a pilot’s job, you put the person in simulators and you have them fly the simulator at a higher speed than they would in a regular aircraft. And the theory is that as you’re getting exposed to these cues on a very rapid basis that you’re making cognitive adjustments for those cues and you’re learning the skill faster and better actually.
The real reason for accelerated skill acquisition here has to do with acquiring and recognizing cues more quickly. So obviously in the flying tasks, there are lots of cues you have to be paying attention to. So the theory behind real-time learning is that you’ll learn these cues more quickly because they would be coming at you more quickly.
There has been some work done in the area. I think that has some promise. This could be another strategy that you can use to accelerate learning. It really requires a simulator to be able to do it, though. So it wouldn’t be applicable to all tasks or all jobs really.
One caution is that you have to be careful with how you expose the trainee to this method. You don’t want to confuse them or disappoint them so much in their performance that they are turned off to it. I think that’s a hazard with above-real-time training. If they just keep failing and failing, that’s probably not a good way to learn and of course not the way to accelerate proficiency.
Dr. Lia DiBello has been using a model of simulating rapid failures in a compressed time frame. It is believed that it would help the individual to readjust their mental schema and change is permanent and actually helps them acquire the skill at a faster rate. Do you see the above real-time simulation method similar to rapid failure simulation?
Dee Andrews: Yes, I think that kind of falls in line with the above-real-time training theory where we speed everything up. We know they’re going to make errors, but we learn from our errors. For example, when you take a test in a class when you get the test results back, what are the first things you look at? The ones you missed. If you answered the question correctly, you don’t spend much more time on it, but if you answered it incorrectly, you want to go and seek the correct answer. We have this internal need to correct our behavior. I think the above-real-time training idea falls into those kinds of categories.
As far as learning from errors is concerned, it takes time. For example, writing software – people who learn to code software, seem to have to make mistakes for coding software and then correct the mistakes. That’s how they acquire expertise. However, that’s a long procedure for them to learn how to code well. I’m not sure this skill acquisition can be accelerated.
Situated and Simulated Accelerated Learning Technique
Simulation-based training is a quite established method in the military and in aviation because this gives an environment to safely develop and practice skills. Jobs are becoming situationally complex and sometimes unpredictable for which predefined heuristics may not exist. How do you think the simulation-based method can help to accelerate human thinking and judgment?
Dee Andrews: One example I would mention is the situated simulation training technique. The US military has been involved in Iraq and Afghanistan for a number of years now. They had the situation where young officers were required to go in and essentially become sort of the mayor of a village of Afghans or Iraqis. So here is a young person who barely has finished their college in military training and now they’re making decisions that a mayor might make about dispositions of resources, about legal matters which all are very complicated issues, and on top of that doing this in a foreign environment.
One of the things the Army and Marine Corps did was to set up some sort of simulated territory. They set up the villages in the U.S. similar to what these young officers are going to face. They actually hired Afghans and Iraqis who were living here to act the role of these villagers. And then they were put in situations where they were stressed. Arguments would crop up between local villagers and between different landlords. And so they really tried to give them exposure to what kinds of decisions they might be making.
So in one sense, you could say they had accelerated their learning. It gave them some exposure before they actually got there, over not having any exposure at all. This could accelerate it. However, there are possibly no studies that really showed if that training in the villages or the simulated villages actually helped them in the field or accelerated their proficiency in handling those situations. Obviously, the military believed it helped because they have kept the funding of these types of training centers. I am not aware of whether or not it may have compressed time to proficiency, but they must have believed that there was some value to them that they kept putting these young officers to their kind of training.
JIT Training Vs. Accelerated Learning
In your opinion what is the challenge to accelerating the skills?
Dee Andrews: I think equally important is the idea of retention. In order to accelerate learning, we have to worry about retention. We can try and accelerate learning the acquisition, but if we don’t worry about the backend of the learning equation, that is, retention, then we really haven’t accomplished much. It can be quite a challenge, particularly if it’s a skill that is prone to decay, you know fairly rapid decay, and flying could certainly fit in that category. So that’s something to worry about. Sometimes temporary duties may also involve the skills prone to decay.
Could Just-in-Time training techniques be helpful in retention and in accelerating learning?
Dee Andrews: Just-in-time training is training that is quickly thrown at the people while they are doing the operation, and you have to train them just-in-time for them to use it. I would say in many cases just-in-time training isn’t necessarily accelerated learning [which requires somewhat different techniques]. This is because mostly JIT training uses old techniques for training in JIT settings instead of adopting new accelerated learning techniques. They may be the same or may not be. Much depends on how the training organization puts things in place. I think it’s important to make a distinction between just-in-time training and accelerated learning.
Acknowledgment: I highly appreciate Dr. Dee Andrews spending time to provide this insightful information on how military organizations are adopting some new methods like the above real-time simulation and situated simulation to accelerate learning and proficiency.
Credits: Thoughts expressed in this blog are credited to Dr. Dee Andrews. Any part of this conversation cannot be reproduced without explicit permission from Dr. Dee Andrews. The article can be cited with appropriate citations and references.