Modelling Excellence – A Basis for Sharing Deep Knowledge and Skills

Knowledge as iceberg

Knowledge as iceberg (Photo credit: mars_discovery_district)

Within every organisation one can identify people who are masters at what they do. They might be better at selling or at negotiating or motivating a team. However, though they are good at what they do, they might not be able to easily articulate the knowledge that they have. They just do it!

One way for your firm to become the best in its class is to identify points of excellence within the firm, then make the tacit knowledge and skills explicit so that these can be transferred to others. The process by which this is done is called modelling.

The whole basis of legal training is based on modelling. The Master-Apprentice system (or ‘Sitting by Nellie’ as the process of learning as an articled clerk was called), supposedly allowed young lawyers to learn by absorbing the tacit knowledge (rather than explicit knowledge) as to how ‘master practitioners (ie partners) operated. Unfortunately the procedure was flawed because not all partners had great habits!

The practice works best when we work closely with the people who excel, and identify how they do what it is they do well. We pay close attention to the knowledge they need, the beliefs they hold, how they organise themselves, and even how they think about what they do.

These models are then translated into powerful learning programmes, which allow transfer of critical skills to others in the organisation.

Modelling involves identifying people – or teams – that are excellent, and eliciting what precisely they do (ie their behaviours) and, probably even more importantly ‘how they do it’ when they are ‘being excellent’. We know that excellent behaviour comes from a level of unconscious competence, what are often referred to as ‘habits’ – ie when we are ‘being excellent’ we are not thinking about what we are doing, we might be in a state of what’s called ‘flow’ and simply doing it!

Robert Dilts provides a useful framework for eliciting the model. The following questions can provide the basis to the conversations with the model subjects as they carry out their activities. Not all the questions will be relevant, but they provide a good list for starters.

Environment: Where and When?

  • Where and when do they engage in the activity?
  • How do they organise and manage their environment throughout the activity?
  • What was the typical environment in which they worked and how was that a reflection of who they are as people?

Behaviour: What?

  • What do they do and say when they are doing the activity?
  • What are they saying to themselves? What internal pictures do they see? What do they hear? What do they feel as they do the activity?
  • What do they do and what do they say that was characteristic of the kind of person they are?
  • What effect does their behaviour have on the people with whom they came into contact and with whom they worked?

Capabilities: How?

  • How do they do what they do, ie. with what skills and qualities?
  • What were their strategies for getting results they got, whatever they were?
  • What were the qualities that they demonstrated not only in the context of the teaching/training they gave but also in any other context?

Beliefs & Values: Why?

  • Why do they use those particular capabilities and skills to accomplish those activities?
  • What values are important to them when they are involved in those activities?
  • What beliefs guide them when they are doing them?
  • What was important to them in life and in work?
  • What was important to them in the interactions they had with the students they were training?

Identity: Who?

  • Who are they (what kind of person are they) when they are engaged in those beliefs, capabilities and behaviours?
  • What labels did they give themselves?
  • What representation did they have of themselves?

Purpose: Who else?

  • Who else are they serving with this activity?
  • What was the purpose of what they did?
  • What is the vision they are pursuing or representing?
  • What bigger systems did they consider themselves to be connected to?
  • What added value did they seek to bring to these bigger systems?
  • What legacy did they want to leave with what they did?

The answers to these questions can provide powerful insights and allow firms to codify excellent approaches and teach others.

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