People Classroom

Chad Jackson

Learning and the 10,000 Hour Threshold to Become an Expert Engineer?

February 14, 2011

Do you consider yourself an expert at your job? Well, maybe that’s not the best question. Let’s try this instead. All tags and titles aside, do you consider yourself a professional’s professional as an engineer? Why ask the question? Well, something in an interesting article written by Tony Schwartz over at the Harvard Business Review …

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People Classroom

Learning and the 10,000 Hour Threshold to Become an Expert Engineer?

Do you consider yourself an expert at your job? Well, maybe that’s not the best question. Let’s try this instead. All tags and titles aside, do you consider yourself a professional’s professional as an engineer?

Why ask the question? Well, something in an interesting article written by Tony Schwartz over at the Harvard Business Review titled Six Keys to Being Excellent at Anything caught my eye.

Like everyone who studies performance, I’m indebted to the extraordinary Anders Ericsson, arguably the world’s leading researcher into high performance. For more than two decades, Ericsson has been making the case that it’s not inherited talent which determines how good we become at something, but rather how hard we’re willing to work — something he calls “deliberate practice.” Numerous researchers now agree that 10,000 hours of such practice as the minimum necessary to achieve expertise in any complex domain.

I certainly agree with the inherited talent point. There’s no substitute for long tenured experience in making design decision, regardless of your degree or background. But then, in a related note, Jeff Glass of the Masters in Engineering Management program at Duke University had this to say in his post titled 10,000 Hours.

I would contend that less than half of your time will be spent practicing even if you really work at it and, if you do not focus and are spread too thin in your job, less than 25% of your time will be available for this practice. So somewhere between 5 and 20 years of practice will be needed to make you an expert!

Now I would say engineering qualifies as a complex domain. And what with a horde of Boomer engineers about to retire and the difficulty in getting Gen Z interested in engineering, I wonder if we can afford to wait 20 years for the development of expert engineers. All this is why I found a relatively recent benchmark report written by Mollie Lombardi over at the Aberdeen Group on learning. Now the report has a decidedly technology oriented perspective to it. But there’s good insight in it regardless. Here’s a snippet.

Learning is not a new area of focus for most organizations, but it is one that has undergone rapid change and evolution in recent years. While many companies understand that learning is critical to their ability to meet organizational goals, they still struggle to keep up with the ways in which technology is changing how, where and the ways in which we learn. Aberdeen’s October 2010 study of nearly 400 organizations on Learning & Development found that not only are top performing companies looking at learning differently, but that they are extending it outside the enterprise and using new tools to deliver it. Three key technologies – mobile learning solutions, social networking tools, and learning content management systems (LCMS) – are playing critical roles in helping organizations address their learning challenges, and improve key business metrics.

All this started me thinking about learning programs in engineering organizations. Now I’ve certainly seen mentoring programs. And I’ve seen efforts to capture and reuse knowledge. But in my recollection, I’ve seen very few learning programs where the ultimate goal is widespread and standardized education within an engineering organization. And given the problems cited before, I think that’s a problem. Is it time to reconsider new learning methodologies for engineering?

Now it’s your turn. Do you think it takes this long to become an expert engineer? Do you think that sort of tenure is necessary before engineers take on serious responsibilities? What sort of learning or education programs have you seen to address this sort of issue? Any other creative ideas to help? Let us know what you think.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.

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