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Much of any organisation's energy is spent in developing people to the point that they have the experience to do their jobs expertly. To be expert at a job is to have sufficient confidence, knowledge and understanding to be able to invent new and appropriate responses as new demands occur. Just knowing the rules is not enough. Until now the only processes for gaining experience have involved huge amounts of elapsed time. The word 'experience' implies that we can only gain it that way. However, it is possible to transfer experience to a less experienced person. It is not easy but it is possible.
It is possible to have old heads on new shoulders with all the benefits of enhanced performance that this implies. Organisations do not have to suffer a catastrophic loss of knowledge and skill when a key person leaves. The processes of learning, training and development can be much more effective and relevant than any so far developed.
The process of experience transfer
The following describes the most understood case of a single learner and a single teacher. We believe the same principles apply in the more complex case of a teacher and a class. The transfer process involves the learner integrating into their experience 'missing' pieces from the teacher's experience (metal map) which make sense to the learner. This demands that the whole process be client-centred throughout. It is the learners needs that take precedence. We make sense of things starting from what we already know.
The transfer process demands high-level communication skills between the parties and a strong degree of willingness to engage in the process. This motivation is more likely to occur in an atmosphere or culture that is not excessively competitive or judgmental. Both discourage the closeness that is necessary for very delicate communication. The parties need to listen to each other well.
What does this mean in practice?
People can be very good at something, but not know how they do it. They need drawing out with careful questions and much listening. The best way is a one-to-one conversation. There must be good enough listening skills to create a non-judgemental atmosphere and encourage careful reflection . The process can be very helpful to both parties. It is very useful to know how you do things well.
A good way to get at something concrete and useful is to "Ladder". This means to start open. The learner might say, "You are obviously a most successful salesperson, what do you think are the most important things you have to do to be so?" Then go down the ladder, "You say that putting people at their ease is a very important part of your job, how do you do that?" He or she may say that to put people at their ease you "listen with interest" and that means giving warm eye contact and not interrupting.
You can get at how the interviewee thinks by asking why, for example, setting someone at ease is so important. The answer might be, "If people are ease they will be less guarded and you will get more useful information". This tells you that valid information is important for this person's success.
The person with the experience must be patient, use simple language and enourage questions even about apparently trivial matters. If it is important for the learner, it's important.
This process gives both parties a detailed mental map of how the experience person does their work. Then the learner can incorporate the new pieces into the way she or he does the work.
To establish the quality of connection between people required by this process is a major challenge to the managers of organisations but the benefits look to be immense. It has worked 'under laboratory conditions' at an 'Experience Transfer Workshop'. This may help create the commitment required for the much more difficult task of getting the process to work in an organisation.
You can learn the communication skills required through experience transfer practice with review. Counselling skills and attitudes are very helpful. They include client centredness, empathy, being non judgmental, giving good attention and accepting feelings. These are the best approximations we have now to the attitudes and skills needed to transfer experience effectively.
Management commitment to the process and to the establishment of a culture that supports learning and experimentation is essential. Encouragement for people to take time helping each other learn is necessary.
A practical example
A global manufacturing company was doing a major reorganisation. This would involve closing some factories and opening more elsewhere. Some of the closures were in countries where the company had never closed a factory before.
The HR Director was about to retire but had lots of experience of closing factories and was asked to produce advice to the company that captured this.
I listened very hard to his descriptions of his most successful closures and drew out the key ideas and his mental map. I used a mind map for this. Then I played back the information to him.
We expanded these into a list of critical steps that managers must take to manage a successful closure. He backed this with a resource guide to help them take them successfully. The guide was well received and used widely.
You can download it here
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