From Novice to Expert

dreamstime_xs_43690321In my previous post I looked at how the typical learner learning journey would provide a good steer for facilitating informal and social learning activities as a way to meet many training needs, alongside formal learning, all part of the now popular 70:20:10 model for learning.

There is another way that social and informal learning can support formal learning and that’s to ensure that we deliver the best possible learning experience throughout someone’s career.A few attempts have been made to label the learner’s journey from novice to expert. The one I come back to often describes each step as:

  1. Novice
  2. Advanced beginner
  3. Competent
  4. Proficient
  5. Expert

So how can we help the learner to reach their desired level? I say “desired level” as we need to acknowledge that not everyone wants to become an expert in their field. In fact, many are just happy to feel competent in their role. And I venture to suggest that many (if not most) L&D interventions have competence as their immediate end-goal, although I wonder how many truly support developing that level of competence.


Let’s assume – for the sake of argument – that our novices really are absolute beginners, recognising that as a result of our recruitment processes, many may already be advanced beginners.

If many of our novices are really advanced beginners, why do we often serve them with learning for novices? We need to move beyond the “teach them everything” course to an approach that recognises their prior knowledge and allows them to focus on what they don’t know and how to apply their total knowledge back on the job.

Formal learning – in whatever guise that may now take – is probably still the bedrock for training novices in a subject. The learner can be exposed at some depth to the content and with more hands-on involvement from the trainer or subject matter expert, they should receive a rich learning experience.

Sometimes though, a false sense of security is instilled:  through the buzz that the learner gets from the immersive nature of the programme, from the high amount of effort they put in, from their interactions with the other delegates and the rosy picture that’s often presented in the classroom, removed as it is from everyday life.

Armed with a good set of personal learning objectives, determined before the training began and with the support of the trainer in helping each person to realise those, all being well, each learner will head back with a sense of what they need to do and hopefully documented in an action plan.

But without the support of the trainer and the collective wisdom of their fellow course participants, coupled with a strong dose of reality, what seemed achievable a few hours ago, now seems less so. Their journey from novice to expert seems a lonely one.

Advanced beginner

On completing their training, the learner will emerge as an advanced beginner, probably knowing (or only retaining) a little of everything and now needing to start applying what they’ve just learned in a practical way. What obstacles will they have to overcome?

Firstly, they will face the issue of an ever-decreasing recall of the knowledge they learned. As L&D professionals, we need to keep on top of this one, to lessen the slope of the “forgetting curve“. Creating a range of short refresher modules is one solution here, making sure we keep them visible to the learner through a follow-up learning campaign or deploying them via a mobile app. The ability for the learner to pick and mix as needed from resources that we’ve created (or curated) for them, underpins the need for informal learning to support learning transfer.

Secondly, they will need to apply the skills they learned for real, outside of the safety of the classroom where they might only have had limited practice time. They will need to possibly break old habits and will undeniably face situations that were not covered in the main body of the training. This is the time when they need the input of others to help them personalise what they’ve learned to best support them as an individual.

This is where we need to signpost the use of social learning. Just under a decade ago, I designed pre- and post-training interactions between the trainer and course participants into an interpersonal effectiveness training programme. This was facilitated by an online action planning tool, where the learner could also invite their fellow course participants to follow their progress and ask them to comment on how they were doing, or seek their support.

Learners need to know there are easy ways to reach out for support, both expert-led from the trainer and from their peers, for those moments when they want their assistance or practical insights. Course specific forums are one option here, where the advanced beginner can feel comfortable with raising issues with a like-minded and sympathetic audience. As they may not yet feel comfortable raising questions in a wider forum, it’s down the trainer to act as a conduit to knowledge that might reside outside of the course community.


Over time – and this might well be a lengthy leg of the journey – slowly but surely, with the right support, the advanced beginner will increasingly feel more competent.

I see competence aligned to confidence. They may well still be encountering new scenarios – business change is constant after all – so there is an aspect of maintenance at this stage too. The confident practitioners will not panic at the first sign of something different. Whilst you could argue that they might lack the depth of knowledge of a proficient learner, there are still things we can do to ensure they have the support they need to deliver what we expect of them and them of themselves. They should still have informal learning resources to call upon and we should facilitate the process of making sure these are always up-to-date and augmented as needs be.

It’s a cliché perhaps to say that we never stop learning, but as trainers we need to recognise that our learners indeed never stop learning and we must be one-step ahead of them all the way.

Continuing to offer a social learning platform to allow the competent learner to seek support is also crucial. When they were still an advanced beginner, I suggested they might feel more comfortable in a course-specific forum. Now, with the confidence they’ve hopefully gained, they may now value being able to participate in a wider topic or audience type-led community. We also know that experts feel more obliged to contribute to conversations where the members have a higher level of experience and prior knowledge. They tend to avoid the places where the advanced beginners hang out.


The proficient learner is one step ahead of the competent one and has embarked on their journey to expert. They will have arrived at this point through their real-world experience and keeping their knowledge topped up. Now they need to deepen their understanding and perhaps start to broaden their horizons into other related areas too, as up to now, their focus might have been very targeted, which will limit the opportunities for them to develop true expertise.

Formal learning will certainly help with the broadening aspects, as they might well lack the immediate contacts in these areas to benefit as much from social learning approaches. That said, as we saw way back when they were novices, course-specific social learning and informal learning resources will support the acquisition of this deeper knowledge and extended skillset. This is the time when they might also appreciate curated informal learning materials, including those shared by the experts in the organisation.

A proficient learner will still turn to any existing topic or audience-type led communities, as they will want to validate what they’ve learned and seek the feedback of their similarly proficient peers and will eventually want to reach out to the experts in their networks for mentoring and responses to the most challenging of situations.


Finally, with more time spent embedding their deeper knowledge and extended skillset and practicing applying it on a day-to-day basis – and no doubt leaving some peers behind them, for whom proficiency was their goal – some will gain that expert status.

Their priorities will hopefully include sharing their experiences and knowledge with others and I’ve just mentioned their role as partners to L&D in terms of content curation and online mentoring. Experts will typically respond to queries, rather than post their own. They may well also make an appearance at formal learning events too, as the expert co-facilitator.

In terms of their own self-development, we know that experts tend to shy away from formal learning events, for various reasons including having very niche learning requirements for which there are no suitable courses. Their personal desire to remain up-to-date with current and future trends – particularly outside of the organisation – means they will turn to informal learning sources, supported by membership of external peer social learning communities.

This is one of the most challenging categories of learner for L&D and quite often there is little we can appear to add. In the past we’ve often thought that they almost have to be self-sufficient at this point in their careers. That’s a shame though and I’ve seen that with senior (C-level) support, it’s possible to devise programmes of learning to support them. These tend to be heavily geared towards creating opportunities for organised social and informal learning type activities.

From Novice to Expert

So in summary: formal, social and informal learning all have a part to play in the development of our people. Along the journey from novice to expert, varying the combination of approaches at each stage can deliver the right type of content and support they need.

And there is really no harm in sharing all this with your learners. Let them know how the different approaches can help them. L&D practices shouldn’t be a secret. 70:20:10 isn’t a trainer’s code word. I’m not in favour of us publishing the numbers in the ratio as if they are scientifically significant, but by just explaining the different ways we learn will help to embed the 70:20:10 principles into our organisational learning DNA.

From Novice to Expert

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