Defining Competence, Proficiency, Expertise, and Mastery

Think about how you’d answer these questions:

  • How do we as performers make the journey from not able to ready to perform and beyond?
  • How can Human Performance Technology (HPT) practices help remove friction and improve the environments where this journey happens?
  • If we don’t all have the same idea for what the pathway looks like, how can we work together to efficiently help the performer ascend to the levels they need to reach and heights that they aspire to?

While I’m not sure it’s always necessary, I think it’s important to create some sense of consistent gravity around critical anchors in the language of our discipline. Skill, proficiency, and expertise are among the concepts I would consider to be critical in a field that exists to support, facilitate, and improve the things that these terms represent. In this case the mechanisms by which we help folks climb the ladder, navigate pathways, and make connections seems to be more more important than the meaning of the terms (levels) themselves.

The post is still going to be about the lexicon for competence, proficiency, expertise, and mastery but it’s going to cover a bit of ground in the process.

U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Robert J. Papp

I had been planning to read an article written by ADM Robert J. Papp , Jr. titled Proficiency: The Essence of Discipline for a few weeks. I’ve known ADM Papp for a few years and he’s one of the many people I admire. His views on experience and proficiency have informed my own. As an organizational leader (he’s the four star Admiral in charge of the USCG and a genuinely cool dude), the Admiral walks the talk and the steps he’s outlined are indeed in motion. The article did not disappoint.  I recommend giving it a read.

This excerpt from ADM Papp’s article encapsulates the problem nicely.

I began speaking of proficiency in my first “State of the Coast Guard” address in early 2011, and it generated a flood of questions. During all-hands meetings last year, I frequently was asked to describe “proficiency.” I would reply by recounting how during a visit to a Coast Guard boat station I had asked the crew, “Who is the best boat coxswain?” Of course half a dozen boatswain’s mates immediately raised their hands. So I rephrased the question. “If the search-and-rescue alarm sounded and you had to go out in a severe storm, who would you want to be the coxswain of the motor lifeboat?” Everyone turned and pointed to the commander, a chief warrant officer boatswain (BOSN4) and surfman with more than 30 years of experience. Clearly, we all know proficiency when we see it. But how do we become proficient? And proficient at what?

~ ADM Robert J. Papp, Commandant USCG

Do we have a common language for the steps in skill acquisition?

As I read ADM Papp’s article, it struck me that while we often talk about proficiency, skill, and expertise in my field, we might not have a common idea for what these terms represent. If we don’t have a common concept for the meaning, it could be difficult for us to agree on the mechanisms we use to facilitate (or know when to get out of the way and trust in the strength of the network or the individual). When do we mediate and intervene? When do we let go? Tough questions if we don’t agree on the model for what skill progression looks like.

I talked about my views on the place “skills” live in the great network of being in Make the Structure Visible. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s assume that the outcome is the goal and the skill is one of the means to reach the goal. Let’s also assume that most, if not all, skills can be categorized with multiple different levels of mastery.

To start, let’s riff off of an inspiring post by Craig Wiggins with some martial arts flavor. These are probably some of the oldest mastery development models in existence. Ancient disciplines seem like a good place to start. The definition of levels is one facet, but looking at the model, the real value of the definition is in the mechanisms that bridge from one level to the next.

Shuhari (foundations, breaking away, transcendence)

Shuhari comes from a Japanese martial art concept that illustrates progression for attaining mastery through disciplined learning.

 shu (守) translates as protect or obey. In the context of Japanese martial arts, this is where learning progression begins. These foundations represent learning fundamental techniques, heuristics, and proverbs. During this stage, the subject of the discipline does not deviate from the forms presented by a single instructor.

 ha (破) translates as detach or digress. This is where learning progression expands beyond the foundations and the subject is encouraged to innovate and break free of the rigid foundations. During this stage, the subject explores the application of the foundational forms, making some forms their own and discarding others.

 ri (離) translates as leave or separate. In this stage, the subject completely departs from the discipline of the forms and opens themselves to creative techniques that align with the desires of the heart and mind within the bounds of laws, rules, and values. The subject is encouraged to use what they have acquired during shu and ha to transcend teachings and acquire mastery, making their own connections and relationships to the discipline.

Chinese martial arts such as Wushu also offer a three-phase mastery concept.

  • Earth – Basics.
  • Human – Ready to learn (equated to 1st level black belt, so I suppose you’re not really ready to learn in this context until you’ve reached performance competence.)
  • Sky – No conscious thought.

It looks like the concepts of defining states or levels along the path to mastery have been around for a while. These relatively simple models represent a disciplined progression and transformation from novice to apprentice through to journeyman and master.

The Flowers Model of Capacity

I’ve long held my own categorization for levels of performer across three dimensions: Selection, interpretation, and execution.  Following novice through master, each level is matched with a more colloquial label.

Novice is matched with the label Burden since it can be a challenge to find the right resources to grow a novice.  This isn’t meant to be an insult to the novice. Everyone has to start somewhere. This merely implies that the development of the novice can be a larger draw on an organization’s resources than the development of the higher levels. That doesn’t prevent a senior performer from regressing or not growing beyond the novice level. We don’t always do the Novice relationship (opportunity) justice. The burden level is about exchange of value. When considering a person that’s new to an organization, training and patience are an investment in future returns.

It’s purely coincidental, but this is really similar to the Shuhari model of progression through mastery. The chart describing this model represents three main activity areas: selection, interpretation, and execution. I still like this model for some types of work but I don’t think it’s good enough to map into a common lexicon.

Dreyfus’ Model of Skill Acquisition

This model of skill acquisition comes from Hubert Dreyfus, a philosopher and educator. The original model proposed that people pass through five stages in pursuit of skills: novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert. This was later revised to encompass seven distinct stages.

Novice A novice is just learning the basics of a subject, unable to exercise discretionary judgment and has rigid adherence to taught rules or plans.

Advanced Beginner The advanced beginner is beginning to connect relevant contexts to the rules and facts they are learning. Folks at this level may have no sense of practical priority. All aspects of work may be treated separately and will likely have equal importance.

Competent A competent performer is able to select rules or perspectives appropriate to the situation, taking responsibility for approach.

Proficient A proficient performer has experience making situational discriminations that enables recognition of problems and best approaches for solving the problems. At this stage, intuitive reactions replace reasoned responses.

Expert  The expert performer is able to see what needs to be achieved and how to achieve it. This level of performer is able to make more refined and subtle discriminations than a proficient performer, tailoring approach and method to each situation based on this level of skill.

Master The mastery performer has developed their own style, extending expertise within a domain with their own synthesis of tools and methods.

Practical Wisdom This level was tacked on later at the behest of a colleague. This describes the assimilation of the master’s creations within the culture of a work unit or organization. In my interpretation, this is the closure of the cycle and describes the giving back from the master to the domain, enhancing the domain body of knowledge itself.

Let’s focus for a moment on the four levels in the middle: competence, proficiency, expertise, and mastery. These represent the progression from confidently able (decreased burden on the system – returns are beginning to emerge), intuitively able (solver), to crazy able (synthesizer), and beyond.

While I like this model, it doesn’t seem to offer a solid definition of the behavioral components of proficient, expert, or master. If it matters that these levels are attained, what signifies each milestone for a particular skill? How are these levels distinct?

James Atherton offers an extension that might be useful in narrowing the definition expertise and may be helpful in quantifying the meaning of and mechanisms for attaining proficiency, expertise, and mastery. He adds that an expert might be defined by the demonstration of:

  • Competence: The ability to perform a requisite range of skills.
  • Contextualization: Knowing when to do what.
  • Contingency: The flexibility to cope, adapt, and respond when things go wrong.
  • Creativity: The capacity to solve novel problems.

I’m not sure these round it out for me completely, but these do clarify the borders of meaning between these terms. To be useful, the definitions should ultimately define a clear distinction among proficiency, expertise, and mastery that sets these levels apart from the threshold of competency.

One question that seems to surface often, one that I’ve brought up as well, is the importance of skill mastery beyond performance competence. How important is mastery beyond performance competence? I think the answer is “it depends” but it seems like there’s a consistent human drive that requires a goal beyond status quo for satisfaction in life (including life at work). If we don’t define what those goals could look like and don’t set our expectations higher, we risk performance competence becoming the high water mark in organizational performance expectations. Shouldn’t performance competence be the minimum standard?

Wrapping this up

I think holding a common understanding of what each of these levels mean could help to better communicate relationships. The value of this common thread transcends the relationships between the levels. A common understanding could help us better map the what, when, and why of how we help folks navigate the journey from no skill to skill mastery or any stop in between.

Let’s continue the conversation. Does Dreyfus’ model resonate with you? What have you found? Does this matter as much as I think it does?

The Case for a Clear Lexicon Part 1: Orientations

I’ve been thinking about this post for bit. Dr. Clark Quinn has been thinking along similar lines, from a different angle at his Learnlets blog (

This post is about lexicons. What we call things, what these labels mean, and how these labels lose their meaning when folks develop a tendency to apply the same label to everything. Yes, courses, I’m picking on you again. Or am I?

Earlier this week, a co-worker and I discussed some recent feedback we received on a “course” the organization deployed earlier in the year. I had a really hard time seeing these products as a valuable solution when this set of courses were originally contracted for design and production last year. I still think we paid far more for these than the value they deliver, but there’s something this class of products appear to provide that I didn’t account for. From the feedback we’ve received, a few potential and (to me) unexpected value propositions seem have emerged:

  1.  These junior teammates were often involved in tasks away from operations and didn’t have the opportunity to orient to equipment and platforms while qualifying in other areas or performing entry level tasks. The orientations helped these members maintain a sense of connection with meaningful operational tasks and the bigger picture.
  2. An independent opportunity to study and orient to the basics of a platform stokes confidence to ask better questions when interacting with experienced teammates.

I used quotes around “course” above because I think the classification of solutions described above are not courses at all. This might seem like a petty labeling nitpick.  But it seems important, if not critical, to reconcile the performance solutions lexicon around fit, purpose, and characteristics so we don’t pollute one stream with the meaning provided by another. This intersects with solution selection processes as well.

When you think about fit, purpose, and characteristics of a course what attributes come to mind? Do any of these characteristics resonate? Courses…

  • Are designed for a resulting net positive change in capability or behavior for tasks that must be committed to memory (measured in outcomes, not quiz scores)
  • Provide examples and demonstrations that show, illustrate, and elaborate concepts, procedures, and processes.
  • Provide opportunities for authentic and contextual practice and feedback.
  • Frame structures of clear progression toward skill goals.

How many packages have you seen that take on the course label don’t carry all (or any) of these features? Many? Most? Almost all of the compliance “courses” I’ve had the “pleasure” to participate in didn’t offer any of these characteristics. And this isn’t isolated to online offerings. Many physical classrooms suffer from the same deficiencies.

These qualities aren’t elements I’ve made up. Dr. Dave Merrill, Dr. Ruth Colvin Clark and countless others express these qualities as the core principles of effective instruction. Reams of books and studies have been published to support these characteristics as central to success.

It’s not uncommon for packaged content to take on the label of a course. To me, a mislabeling can seriously dilute the value and distract from the deliberate services provided by a course of instruction. A lexical hierarchy of solutions that includes courses and other classifications of solution could work together to better define what solutions are, what they do, and how they are selected to match with problem contexts. Heck, this common lexicon could already exist. If you know of a systems lexicon for performance solutions, I’d love to hear about it.

I suggest adding a category of solution at the level of awareness called orientation. Orientations have value but they are not courses. Orientations provide foundations for more complex learning structures and support tools. Solutions that aren’t courses have value to the big picture. Orientations, for example, can provide a nudge or boost for task performance when added to performance support. Orientations can also fit well when intentionally situated within course structures. Orientations don’t need to be fancy or expensive to get the job done.

We should try to avoid dressing solutions up as objects that they’re not and confusing ourselves as well as the people we provide services for.

I’ll be thinking and writing about this more in the future and welcome feedback and advice. In the end, maybe a more clearly and consistently defined set of characteristic definitions and labels for performance solutions wouldn’t be a bad thing.

What do you think?

Life should be defined by what we are for, not what we are against.


Life should be defined by what we are for, not what we are against.  ~ Don Robison, CDR, USCG Retired

A good friend of mine just published a book of stories. Each of these stories hold a special meaning and a little bit of “inside joke” to someone who has spent some time on the seas. You might wonder, what does this have to do with the theme of the site? Two things. First, I think Don is a great storyteller and you’ll actually enjoy this. Second, he’s finishing his post-graduate stuff in Instructional Design at Old Dominion University and is doing some really cool research into the connections between aesthetic and motivation. So, there’s definitely a connection.

He’s made a sample of three stories available for download. You can also buy the book here (Amazon) or here (Create Space).  My lovely wife made the cover and all of the illustrations for the book.

This is the first story from the book and the sample. I love the conclusion and the motto that follows the end of the story. Not only is it an expression of a perfect motto. It also exposes the heart and character of the author – a man of passion, compassion, and the just right perspective.

In these times where we regularly see one citizen pitted against another in a verbal battle of ideals, I think this message could bring a little bit of sanity to the debate.

I hope you enjoy these as much as I did.


I suspected the interview would be tough from the beginning. LT Sellar grinned at me, cast an amused glance at his two colleagues, and asked the first question: “Now, Mr. Robison, why do you want to be a Coast Guard officer besides…” and here he looked down at my application essay and read from it; “…feeling the wind in your hair and salt spray on your face?” Continue reading Life should be defined by what we are for, not what we are against.

Narrowing the Solution Field – Part 2

In the first part of this series, I introduced an approach for making selection of interventions a little less arbitrary. In this installation, I’ll refine process funnel a bit to round out and clarify definitions of the output levels.

When using processes like this, I think it’s important to keep in mind:

  1. There is no magical process or algorithm to make design decisions automatically. Because of all the factors at play, this stuff is work. Doing it right takes rigor and  discipline. Anything short of a disciplined approach is rolling the dice.
  2. Design is a complex business of weighed options and trade-offs. The answers are almost never easy and there is rarely only one answer.
  3. This process of refinement isn’t linear. It IS iterative and involves making and validating assumptions.
  4. Design is a process of illumination. You can’t solve a problem that you can’t see.

That said, models and tools for thinking through problems can be really helpful to shake things loose and help you to show your work.

Continue reading Narrowing the Solution Field – Part 2

Just a Nudge – Getting into Skill Range

I may have mentioned somewhere that I was active duty USCG for a decade or so, a decade or so ago. If I hadn’t, I have now.

Active duty members of the U.S. Coast Guard get the opportunity to take on jobs like boarding team member (BTM) or boarding officer (BO). While qualifying as a BTM or BO, you become intimately familiar with law enforcement concepts like the use of force, authority and jurisdiction. One of the common tenets of use of force is only apply the minimum force necessary to compel compliance. That means you don’t use a take-down or baton when a professional tone will get the job done. Even when not considering compliance as the goal, this concept be useful when designing instruction performance solutions and experiences that support learning.

This is the visualization of an idea that’s been in my head for awhile. It stands as a rationalization against the pursuit of instructional perfection. This rationalization assumes that learning is a function of the learner and instructional perfection is a futile goal. In my view, attempting to design for perfect skill mastery can actually defeat or smother the natural learning process. I’m pretty sure this concept isn’t an original idea.

Think about a concentric circle with two separate borders. The first border at the center of the circle is skill mastery. This is the zone representing the skill level of people that have have been practicing for a significant period of time and have ascended through the ranks of apprentice and journeyman. The master of a craft has typically poured more into their own development than the average performer. The master has pursued mastery and has probably reached this level of mastery with the careful and loving assistance of a master of the craft. The second border on the outside is the skill range. This defines the minimum level a performer would need to reach in order to “figure it out” and succeed in a task or set of tasks that require the same skill.

This concept assumes that skill mastery is rarely required for accomplishment but does NOT exclude skill mastery as a target when pursued by the performer. Imagine a booming emphasis on “pursued by the performer” voiced by James Earl Jones. I don’t believe skill mastery is driven from the outside. People only reach mastery when they really want to. Never by accident.

The idea here is to design solutions to provide just the right nudge at just the right moment to place folks within range of successful accomplishment. Given the right environment, people can be remarkably adept at figuring things out. If we rob learners of the opportunity to “figure it out”, we risk missing the mark entirely and increase the probability that learning won’t stick or the type of learning that takes place won’t connect in the way we, or more importantly the learner, needs it to. To me, instruction performance solutions and experiences that support learning should be designed as a nudge to help the performer learn just enough to get within range of the next thing or success in the task at hand. Nudge, get out of the way and be ready to give another nudge in a right moment.

Job aids and performance support can serve as perfect nudges — getting out of the way when needed and appearing at just the right moment at the request of the performer. Maybe we can spend more time building for just the right nudge in the right moment and less time building over-engineered content packages?

Instructional perfection is a unicorn. A mythical creature. The effort expended to reach it is not only wasteful but probably defeats your design purpose. Design for nudges and watch deliberately from a distance. Time spent connecting your learners with just what they need, even when that need is another journeyman or master to help guide them, is time well spent. Your learners will excel until they need another nudge and since they used their own natural learning process to move through the skill range, it’ll be far more indelible (they’ll remember the experience).

This doesn’t mean a designer is completely hands-off — it merely means you need to treat your audience as capable learning machines. Because… they are.

In the business of L&D, we tend to beat folks into submission with information. We should really ask ourselves, what’s the minimum force I need apply to compel the desired outcome. We need to be prepared to stop there and stay out of the way. We aren’t the source of learning magic. They are.

Narrowing the Solution Field – Part 1

“Design is a process of illumination”
@xpconcept on twitter

We recently rewrote all of our operating procedures for digital performance and training solutions. This was a big undertaking and one that’s not yet finished. One of the areas where we are not there yet is a consistent model for making selection of interventions less arbitrary. I think you may be able to help us out and vice-versa.  Continue reading Narrowing the Solution Field – Part 1

Take the Lead in Change

“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries … and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.”

– Niccolo Machiavelli

Photo credit: nanagyei

A Simple Lens: Content and Concept Profile

A Perspective Out of Balance

Most folks in the digital performance solutions industry (e-learning and the like) probably agree that the biggest skewed perspective in solution design and implementation is the disproportionate priority placed on information in the solution equation.

Distribution of information almost always seems to take a higher priority than tangible outcomes. At the very least transmission of information (not receipt, mind you) is thought to be roughly equivalent to outcome. Box checked, game won. Game over. Next problem. Right?

Continue reading A Simple Lens: Content and Concept Profile

What’s on your bookshelf?

This afternoon, Judy Unrein, Mike Taylor and myself had a brief exchange about a book we agreed was one of those required reading titles for our craft.

This spawned an idea that it could be really cool to have a blog-round where folks talk a bit about what books and references they carry on their virtual or physical bookshelf (What’s on your Kindle?). I love this idea. Seems like a great way to share useful resources and provide a way for folks to engage and get to know one another. What you read can reveal some pretty deep things about who you are. It’s a data point.

It’s hard to narrow down to five books that I would recommend to others. There are so many great references. These are what I have at my fingertips at the moment. Continue reading What’s on your bookshelf?