Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Who Decides Who The “Master” Is?

Eons ago in the days of guilds and somewhat more recently in the heyday of unions, workers were identified by experience rankings such as apprentice, journeyman and master. A master artist with vision and technique created this art deco window from the 1940s that I found in Vancouver. The artists are still with us and, yes, they still become masters of their craft. How about the employee in non-artistic businesses? Is there vision, skill, technique or craft in his or her work?

We’ve done away with the apprentice/journeyman/master designations in favor competency-based job descriptions (another rant, but I’ll leave it alone today) and longevity-based wage scales. Skill designations appeared to create a kind of prejudice and, even, a kind of an entitlement viewpoint where employees feel that they are entitled to jobs and living wages in return for years of experience, increasing knowledge and expertise... and that managers who no longer do the work may be of less value (which merely about not seeing the craft inherent in management but raises hackles anyway.)

In the switch over we lost track of the master craftsman among us. Who and what constitutes a master in your field? Is this the person with a PhD and 30 years of experience but no “field” experience? Someone with 10 years of field experience but no degree? Or is there a better way to get at the underlying differences that makes someone a master of their craft.

Consider proficiency. In HR terms 'proficient' means that the person can do the job well with little supervision (i.e., with little or no intervention by a supervisor, team lead or more experienced worker).

Dictionary.com defines proficiency as: A noun -- the state of being proficient; skill; expertness: proficiency in music.

I thought that the idea of a definition was to use words OTHER THAN the one you are defining. How can we define proficiency by saying it is the state of being “proficient”. This begs the question. Skill an expertise don’t help much either.

Merriam Webster.com defines proficiency as: 1: advancement in knowledge or skill: PROGRESS 2: the quality or state of being proficient.

We’re making progress here aren’t we? Does that mean we’re becoming (moving into the state of being) more proficient? I think not. ‘Advancement of knowledge and skill’ misses the point by a mile. One can be advancing their knowledge and skill and still not be proficient. One can also be proficient and continue to advance their knowledge and skill.

Wikipedia references definitions for ‘expert’, ‘progress’, ‘skill’ and ‘proficiency testing’ but has no definition for proficient or proficiency.

It would appear that we have a real and basic human issue with defining proficiency – we don’t know how to define it.

If we don’t know how to define it how we judge whether someone is proficient or not?

What do we know about proficiency?
1. Time and experience are highly related to proficiency -- that which we do frequently and in all the possible variations in work methods, tools, designs, and artistic intents, eventually leads most of us toward some degree of proficiency (if not mastery). However, this proficiency can be lost when tools change or the culture (or business demand) around us change leaving us with a proficiency in something of lower value (a whole ‘nother issue but worth mentioning here.)
2. Repetition is highly related to proficiency – drill and practice can provide enough iterations that we can develop proficiency in a short period of time and than might have been expected without it. This is why elementary schools still use worksheets… and why physical therapist and physical trainers give us specific exercises to do in order to build our muscle capacity, balance, and agility.
3. Innate talent can speed up the process of gaining proficiency and even allow individuals to “jump” over their peers and teachers allowing them to become more proficient more quickly than others.
4. Lack of proficiency is visible. It’s always easy to see someone who is not proficient. Even if we do not know much about the field, we can look at someone who is not proficient and recognize their distress.

Okay, let’s go with that for now. Consider #4, that proficiency is visible. If it’s visible, then we should be able to agree on the characteristics of someone who is not proficient.
• Awkward movements (lacks agility)
• Signs of stress and distress (fear, pain, anxiety, tears)
• Makes mistakes
• Takes a long time to complete a relatively simple task
• Has to stop and think hard about the next step
• Frequently asks for help or bogs down (freezes) and is unable to work until help is available
• Has difficulty figuring out how to correct the problems he or she created when making a mistake
• The product that is being produced is obviously flawed both during the process of creating and at the end of the process

Why can we describe lack of proficiency but not proficiency? Is this really about a much more ancient talent that humans have – finding prey. We recognize these behaviors as being those of the inexperience (the young) or ill and either feel the need to nurture or attack based on our own pre-dispositions for such things.

So, knowing what signals lack of mastery and lack of proficiency, can we flip them around to create proficiency? Probably. Let's think about having something preying on us. What characteristics would be watching for?
I would propose that proficiency includes these characteristics:
• Agility – fluid movement between discrete parts of the task and the ability to adjust to changes in the environment
• Flexibility – being able to execute under different circumstances, with different tools and different environmental conditions and being able to change approaches and tools based on feedback from the environment.
• Speed – execution in shorter than standard periods; the ability to change directions or actions with little or no apparent thought
• Quality – produces work that has few if any flaws; produces results that are acclaimed by other experts in the field and by those receiving their work output
• Accurate problem identification – quickly and accurately defines problems with very small amounts of data indicating that a problem might exist
• Creative problem-solving – quickly reconfigures available skills and resources to solve new problems for which he or she does not yet have experience but where the problems exhibit characteristics of similar problems that he or she has experienced
• Joy and passion – loves the work getting strength and pleasure from executing it and from getting better and better at it
• Self-challenging – drives oneself for continuous life-long learning
• Confidence – willing to back their work and commit to their product’s quality

Confidence may be the one area where we can judge our own proficiency. Think about it. What work products are you willing to back with your personal commitment to their quality? Would others judge you as proficient? As a master of that field?