Networking

Evaluate your consulting expertise using the Dreyfus model

Do you qualify for the title of expert consultant based on the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition? Read about the model's five stages of learning to find out.

To say that "a comment from Chad Perrin got me thinking" is redundant, but this one made me wonder how many consultants who call themselves experts could qualify for that title based on the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. Let's examine the five stages of learning put forth in a 1980 paper (PDF) by Stuart E. Dreyfus and Hubert L. Dreyfus, focusing on self-evaluation:

1. Novice

In this phase, the subject cannot exercise "discretionary judgment" but must instead exercise "rigid adherence to taught rules and plans." I'm reminded of the time as a newbie operator when I deleted a day's work for the cashiers because those were the documented steps for starting them up in the morning. The novice does not know the domain well enough to generate any creative ideas of his/her own, or even question whether a rule applies in a given situation. At least, that's supposed to be the reason. How often do we simply follow rote procedures without understanding why they're in place? Sure, it's easier that way -- just get the job done and move on. But you can't really call yourself a consultant if you don't at least consider evaluating your client's methods.

2. Advanced beginner

At this stage, the subject has learned to apply some principles situationally, but they don't understand the relative importance of the various aspects of their work, nor do they have a comprehensive picture of how they fit together. I think this often applies to consultants. We like to have our bits well-defined and separated from the work of others. Too many inter-dependencies can make it impossible to get anything accomplished. Clearly separating concerns is a good thing, but as consultants we need to understand how those bits work towards larger goals -- otherwise the client might as well hire a $12 an hour guy off the web. Understanding the big picture often makes the difference between producing what the client requested instead of what they need.

3. Competent

The subject begins to perceive how their work relates to larger goals. They're able to plan their own work, and deal with multiple activities. To cope, they develop routines -- and here's where many consultants get stuck. After getting burned once or twice for failing to cover some base, they develop a fool-proof routine to prevent that from happening again, then swear their eternal allegiance to it. While it's wise to have routine procedures that keep you from having to remember or figure out what to do each time you encounter the same situation, it's important to recognize that not all situations are the same. So when you start lecturing yourself with "I will never again..." or "I will always...", remember that you're placing that safety net at the expense of abdicating the right to think situationally.

4. Proficient

The subject perceives the whole domain as a system, including "deviations from the normal pattern" that inevitably occur. He/she can prioritize, because the relative importance of aspects of the system have become apparent to them. They use adaptable maxims to guide their decisions, rather than hard and fast rules. Many people incorrectly label this level "expert". Certainly, the proficient person seems like a wizard to the competent (or below), able to almost magically know the right course of action. But the magic is only a more thorough knowledge of the domain than the competent person has. As we shall see, true expertise is something different.

5. Expert

This person has so internalized their understanding of the domain that they have no need for rules, guidelines, or maxims. While they can appreciate the need for organizational rules or the situational truth of maxims, they don't use them to determine their own course of action because they can grok the entire situation and choose the path that leads to the desired outcome. "Rules are made to be broken", but you have to know when and how to break them. More importantly, the expert can go beyond what the project accomplishes, to think about what else could be possible. To what new paths does this effort open access? The vast majority of what's called innovation occurs by accident -- but the expert actively seeks it. Not just innovating for the sake of innovation, though -- it's always because the path could lead to new opportunities that benefit the business.

Think about your relationships with your clients. Where do you fit in this scale, and under what circumstances? What steps could you take to get closer to number 5, or to get a stronger foothold therein? How would your clients react? If they would discourage you from "thinking too much", then maybe they didn't really mean to hire a consultant.

About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

74 comments
Legend640
Legend640

Great tool. Will keep to remind me where I want to be.

mikifinaz1
mikifinaz1

Everything in America revolves around, now. This process, which is used in most of Europe for every skill from machanic to painter produces people who can actually do the work right. Americans don't have the discipline or to take the time for this and want everything now, so they get everything cheap and in mass quantity in a shoddy manner.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Your blog is good, but all the same, there's something amiss. Is consulting a skill? Or rather, is it just one skill? I do realize that the Dreyfus brothers' model is quite rough, obviously entailing macroskills. But still, I'd expect IT consulting to be (in most cases) a rather many-pronged deal. In the case of a troubleshooter consult, the kind of elite project handler that comes in to make sure other IT professionals can do what they're supposed to; there's a lot of things to be done. If I just try to use my layman's knowledge to project from I'd guess that there's the work(er) environment evaluation, evaluating the cooperation vertically and horizontally, the vertical communication flow evaluation, evaluating the project itself, the resources assigned to it, the tools to be implemented... and that's in addition to chosing what to do with these, and then doing it/getting it done (now, that probably contains fallacies of all kinds, but that's just a preliminary example to show what I mean). And then there are other kinds of consulting, ones that likely model completely differently. The tasks preliminarily outlined above would seem to me to reflect a quite diverse set of skills. The specific knowledges, especially the specific technical knowledge, being only a subset. Communication/diplomacy/influence skills are a big enough lump in and of themselves to almost defy conflation into a single skill, and that skill is used in many of those other endeavours. As are the skill conglomerate of observation/induction/intuiting and deduction/abduction/analysis, respectively. So, I think it would be interesting to hear about which things go into consulting for real - and not just my own pocket projections.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Best Practices and #1 fit together? :p ]:)

tbmay
tbmay

Jaqui and I have a similar specialty and I leverage it in my consultancy to reduce license costs for the clients. The challenge I face, as I bet a fair number of you do, is even in 2010, many of the people I work for don't have the vaguest idea about what goes in to business class I.T. Their philosophy is, "It's a computer so you should know what to do...and it shouldn't take more that a couple of mouse clicks to do it because that's all computer work is." In their minds, we're just hoarding a bag of tricks that we won't share with them. I recently told two clients a contractor would need to be called for cabling. Both of them thought that should be part of my job and one of them quite vigorously told me so. I told him I'd gladly help him get one. I already know two that do excellent work. Understanding that we're experts in some things but not all is what I consider necessary humility but in the minds of these clients it contributes to my incompetence. Where do I rate myself? If I didn't know I was good at what I did I wouldn't do it. Some of my clients would call me an expert. Some might not even call me novice. I have found the technical part of running the business to be the easiest part by far.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

and proficient, I've seen too many self proclaimed experts on their arses to be happy with that particlar accolade. All the away across the scale of ability, remember your assumptions and interrogate them viciously every time they come round. [Insert name here] knows what he's talking about Remember it's punctuated with a ? not an !.... You might be right, but it will hurt if you don't check. Never seen this definition before though, rings fairly true.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

guilty of that particular failing. We issue more credible denials though...

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

You're right, and as someone else said here, the technical side is the easy part. Let's not forget negotiation, consensus-building, and motivation (though those could be lumped in with communication/diplomacy/influence). An effective consultant has to bring many talents to bear, or suffer from the lack thereof. Being excellent at one of them doesn't make you an expert in any of the others, so it's important to self-evaluate individual skills and improve rather than neglect the ones in which you're weakest.

apotheon
apotheon

When you capitalize Best Practices like that, you incline me to interpret it uncharitably. Frankly, there's no such thing as Best Practices. What people often label with that buzzworthy phrase is nothing but a set of much-tested rules of thumb. Novices are those people who should basically always adhere to those rules of thumb, except when told otherwise by their superiors in skill. Novices are also those people who often make one of two mistakes: 1. thinking everybody else should as slavishly follow those rules as they should 2. thinking the rules don't apply to them Even experts typically follow such rules, when they aren't doing something that makes them choose to do otherwise. The difference is that when a Novice breaks one of those rules of thumb, it's almost always for the wrong reason, and when an Expert does so, it's almost always for the right reason -- even if (s)he can't articulate that reason effectively.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... are meant for #1. Actually, they can apply all the way up through #3. They begin to annoy #4, and they positively obstruct the work of #5.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Absolutely. Dealing with people is the hardest part by far, followed closely by managing the other administrative parts of the business. In fact, the only hard part about the technical side is determining how it fits with business goals.

Jaqui
Jaqui

that it's those wobbling between 2 and 3 that will do anything that feed the belief that we should know everything. The only reason I would be willing to do cabling, I have done a few years of work WITH an electrician doing cabling. [ 1.5 mile run of voice and data cables from central server to POS terminals, multi-floor cabling in high-rise buildings for mini-computer systems and full electrical installations. ] if I didn't have those years of working with a qualified professional, I wouldn't touch cabling at all.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Always. With that goes humility -- being careful not to overestimate your own abilities, not to underestimate the complexity of the problem domain.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

It's a business. ]:) :D :ar!

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... in a game like Backgammon. A beginner and an expert can make the exact same move in the same situation, yet for the beginner it's fatally disastrous while for the expert it's genius.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

But I chose to lump the Best Practices into a formal singular... like a set of clay tablets. So I didn't use plural congruence. Grammatically speaking I guess it's ellipsis; "How does [use of] Best Practices and #1..." But I gather, that these ominous BPs are what many consultants impose on target staffers. So, on the surface it's a two-pronged question; What does it say of the consultant, and what does it say of the staffers. In reality I guess it turns into "What does it say about how the consultant evaluates the staffers" ... it being a bib. Ok, so that came out way way too acidically, and too overstatedly too... I have to re-tune my keyboard again I guess.

tbmay
tbmay

It's a generic term for generic situations. I've encountered a few (very few) generic situations in my career.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, there comes a moment in many people's progression of learning when they suddenly think it's all easy and self-evident if only they learn a little more. Not unlike the adolescent view of life.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Does the person know the difference between an assumption and a presumption? (FYI ... assumptions can never bite you ... presumptions might ... but not knowing the difference will.) (Sorry, hot button ... :p )

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

that they are assumptions... is a glimmer of something to be :) Many people don't. #1 - 3 have big trouble with that, and it's not native to #4 either, although it begins to show there more often. At least that's how I project it, being an emergence jockey.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

If a process is so well-defined that you can name all the right steps to take, then why isn't it automated? If you respond that you can't automate it because of individual differences, then I'll come back with "then don't try to force round pegs into your square-hole BPs."

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

My first such program was written in 1984 using the old "curses" library -- that was before the new "ncurses". It was a novel concept at the time -- it kept an internal map of the screen and only repainted what needed repainting and when it needed it (usually right before input). Sped up screen-oriented programs tremendously -- back then our fastest terminals used a 9600 baud RS-232 connection, and modems were limited to 2400 baud.

Jaqui
Jaqui

but it just doesn't really get used, a "gui" toolkit for a cli environment. :D it will last, for a long time, those apps that make use of it are far more common than many people know. the extremely handy mc tool being one.

apotheon
apotheon

http://www.gnu.org/software/ncurses/ Interesting choice. There are maybe half a dozen pieces of software developed under the auspices of the GNU project that are not essentially curses on us all. It turns out that ncurses is one of them, a rare gem in a gigantic box of cracked and chipped paste jewelry. GCC, by the way, is neither gem nor paste. It's a big stinking turd.

santeewelding
santeewelding

I'll accept that you are in Four, and that you have made inroads into what you realize is not Kansas anymore. Otherwise, credible testimony about Five means you are above it all, like on a broomstick.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... a small bridgehead in #5. But I have also observed others who hold much more territory in that region. Nobody is at one level for all areas, though. and I meekly acknowledge myself a Novice in most.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Oh. Not yet born. Be assuaged: I made it through. Devolved other means.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

You have the nazar. You approach the hot italian. And then - you pass on the protection - despite the evil eyes raining down on you, not her? The nazar is for you. Bring the chicks chocolates. :)

santeewelding
santeewelding

Bought one, at a bazaar of Mashad, in the form of star sapphire, after much wrangling, protestations and counter protestations, only to deposit it finally into the sweet hand of a hot Italian underage stateside. Didn't do me no good, young and foolish that I was; she, more.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

I'll accept your gifts in good will, and I gift you in return with a Nazar : An apotrope for an apostrophe, it's a fair swap is it not?

santeewelding
santeewelding

"clients personnel" I realize you may have dashed it off -- writing in a big hurry, probably, given your profligacy. From my headline-writing days, should you be interested, you squeeze the language for all it has, without stepping discretely or indiscreetly over any lines. Whereby, you economize. You say, "client personnel", without violating anything or stepping on pedant toes. I leave both the singular and possibly plural placement of (an) apostrophe at your door for later, should you contend with me about this. Just caught my eye. What can I say.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

If best practices are what the consultant imposes upon the clients personnel, then maybe it can be seen in their eyes: relief at guidance, tacit acceptance, a glimmer of questions, mild annoyance at percieved patronization and ... a glint of cold disrespect, perhaps? I guess an expert might be overbearing, but if forced to practice by rote...?

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... rules are deceptively simple. At first glance, it appears that a good understanding of probability is all you would need. But when played between humans, it gets far more interesting than that. Then you go and play it against the computer and find that all your strategies don't work.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

aren't using a Dreyfuss definition. :( More like Mr M Oron's in many cases. :p

apotheon
apotheon

I loved to play it as a child -- and reversi, too, in the form of the Othello branded game. I remember more about Othello's rules than backgammon's, but I don't think I found it as fascinating and exciting. These days, I basically don't remember jack about how play actually worked in backgammon.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

While your knowledge base in the field might justify your humility, your perceptiveness fits with higher numbers.

santeewelding
santeewelding

I keep telling someone else, lies not with those who are looking, but with excellence no matter who -- if any -- are looking. One matter of excellence, I see from my height, is this "realm of being" (I know; I hijacked it) which "some call". That realm lies not with those who are looking. Bend autonomous excellence to that. The juxtaposition of "autonomous" and "excellence" is something you pick up from all-weather broomstick flying.

apotheon
apotheon

Hopefully, you aren't flying Regimental style. My core talent tends to lie in the realm of being what some call a "systems thinker" -- common amongst INTJ and INTP Jung types. That sort of thing helps me analyze matters such as complex systems, systematic construction principles, and so on. When discussing a topic where I'm normally around the level of an Advanced Beginner or Competent, I occasionally find myself inspired by that talent to "flirt with five", as you put it. I could probably excel quite easily at theoretical research psychology, and I do have some interest in the field. Alas, my greater tendency is to lean toward matters more technically and ethically oriented. One is prone to being a long, hard slog toward greatness even for those talented, and the other doomed to obscurity and ridicule because there's no room for correctness in populism.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Flirt with Five, as does your English. I can tell, overflying on my broomstick.

apotheon
apotheon

Your description of your own level of skill suggests to me that you fit solidly into level 4. Of course, I don't know what field that is; it clearly can't be in all fields. There are a couple of narrow IT subfields wherein I might rate myself a 4 -- though maybe I flatter myself. It drops from there. I strongly suspect Sterling is a solid 5 in exactly one subfield, which is really an incredible achievement; it takes a lifetime for most Experts to reach that level, though a really talented guy can hit it in 10 years if well-focused, and under very extreme, high-stakes, high-pressure conditions one might get there in even less time. Most people take 10 years to get to 3 (Competent), and think they're experts at that point. I think I was an Expert in the Dreyfus model for all of about three years. It tapered off rapidly after that, because I didn't really have the practice to maintain it. These days, I probably hover around 3.5 on a good day, a solid 3 (Competent) the rest of the time. I don't expect it to drop beyond that, but I don't really do the kind of driving that would push me up to the Proficient level again. My increasing use of a motorcycle might give me a little bit of a boost, at least in terms of how often I get up around 3.5, I suppose. I suspect that maybe 2% of people here at TechRepublic are Dreyfus model Experts in any particular, very narrow subfield of IT, frankly, though probably 50% or more think they rate Expert in some IT-related field. Contrary to my reputation amongst my detractors, I have nowhere near the arrogance to be one of those people who think that highly of themselves. I just think that poorly of some of my detractors, that wherever I sit on the Dreyfus scale on a particular subject, they probably sit a level or two lower. I'm a cynic -- not a megalomaniac. There's a tendency for one's incompetence to cause one to be blind to the nature of the expertise they have not reached. People tend to overrate their skill level on the Dreyfus scale, not because they're stupid (though some surely are), but because they simply cannot see the next level in some respect, and as a result think they're already there. If you have never reached the level of Expert in any skill and thought long and hard about what made you so good at it, you may never be able to recognize the dividing line between Proficient and Expert. I have forgotten more about driving in adverse conditions than I know about IT security. That's a fact, not a grand proclamation for effect. I know, without a doubt, that I have never even approached that level of Expert where IT security is concerned -- and part of the reason I know that is the fact that I have achieved (and lost) that level of skill in another field. I doubt I will ever achieve that level of expertise in IT or information security, at least within current expected lifespans. On the other hand, being only an Advanced Beginner on the Dreyfus scale as a programmer, I look forward to some day reaching the level of Proficient, and maybe even Expert if I really focus. Writing in English is another area I want to reach that level, and believe I might -- within more than one subfield. Feel free to disregard my thoughts on the matter, of course. I now return you to your regularly scheduled discussion.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

That forming Google searches is one of the key skills for the future, but in all likelihood Google will figure out a way to do that for us before long. Then it will become a lost art, like rapidly threading mag tapes.

jacobus57
jacobus57

After 23+ years of working in various capacities, I would put myself pretty much at 5, but only because I know how much I don't know. I am successful because I recognize that EVERY box, network, installation, AND user is part of a completely unique ecosystem. An update, a new application, a "simple" HW change, can all tip the balance. I learn something new every day, and what I learn gets tucked into my brain, increasing the base of knowledge and building the integrity of the intuition--for what we do is as much art as science--I impose on each new problem. It is why I have been able to fix the unfixable. All of that, and I am REALLY good at forming Google searches ;-) That skill can make almost anyone look like a genius!

apotheon
apotheon

we just wing it and call it logic in hindsight. Speak for yourself. When I discover I'm working on presumption alone, I examine the circumstances for a reasonable set of working assumptions, and build on those assumptions to construct a logical framework for action. If you just play it by ear and bias, and self-justify later, that's a personal problem -- not a species-wide modus operandi. We lie to ourselves about this too. Rationalization is a very natural activity. "What you mean 'we', paleface?" Rationalization is certainly common, but "natural" is a word too loaded with contradictory connotations to be meaningful here. Despite that, you're setting it up as some kind of proof of concept. I don't buy it. Rationalization is about to fail you, because it won't convince me of anything in this case. You'll have to actually take a logical approach. Given your goal appears to be to convince me that taking a logical approach is effectively impossible, I guess you're SOL, because you'll either end up changing your own mind or failing to come up with an argument. So, logically, logic is to be distrusted, especially coming from the other guy. Incorrect. Fallacy is to be distrusted. Assumptions are to be detected, defined, and either agreed or distrusted. Logic itself is fine. If it is actually logic, it is -- by definition -- valid. You've been practicing controlled response, haven't you? It's appreciated You just haven't been insulting in this subthread -- until now. Have you been practicing unwarranted condescension?

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

we just wing it and call it logic in hindsight. That's what we do best anyway; using our brains for what they're doing anyway : inducing, abducing... and calling it deducing all the same. We lie to ourselves about this too. Rationalization is a very natural activity. It takes a lot of discipline to narrow down the error margins on human logic. Many are incapable of it, and most of those aren't aware that it is so. So, logically, logic is to be distrusted, especially coming from the other guy. :) Sorry, just a hobby horse of mine. You've been practicing controlled response, haven't you? It's appreciated :)

apotheon
apotheon

1. "Logically valid" and "straw man fallacy" are mutually exclusive. Your argument is, itself, afflicted by a bit of an implicit straw man fallacy, I suspect. 2. Stating assumptions behind premises clearly serves a very real, useful purpose -- as it allows people to arrive at meaningful conclusions given a set of working assumptions. Without that kind of argument construction, we as a social species would find it quite difficult to get anything done. . . . which is probably why so much that could get done doesn't, since people all too often forget to establish some kind of reasonable set of working assumptions and develop an argument from there. edit: typo -- one missing letter

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

is like slapping a condom on an AK47 and calling it safe! It's still as illegal as dividing by zero, because it gives an arbitrary result (corrupt method and input) disguised as a true result. The "given that" appears only before the "logic operation", never after. There's never a "+/- 3-and-a-half" or other indication of uncertainty after the fact. You know how many straw men like zeno are made of this stuff...

apotheon
apotheon

It's easy to use logic effectively when you account for the limits of human knowledge. You start every premise with "Assuming" or "Given" or some equally appropriate qualifier.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Check out old zeno... The fact is - logic when applied cannot be wrong. But. A human, being equipped with a high-powered inductive/abductive brain, is incapable of performing logic. Even when emulating logic, a human is incapable of supplying it with the fundamental facts to operate on. We don't realize it, but all our facts have fuzzy edges... they're induced and abduced from all over the place, and we don't have a file allocation table to refer us to any "ding am sich". So, yes, logic is the pure infallable - pure because it's totally free of abuse, being free of use too. :p :) EDIT: If that was confusing, the point is this. No performer of "logic" actually performs logic. They emulate it, and jerry-rig it to take an unacceptable input. And in doing so, they become incapable of realizing that no, that wasn't logic. It's was, at best, lodgyc.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... but it's far too easy to apply incorrectly. Usually has something to do with incorrect assumptions, or oversimplifying/misidentifying the phenomena observed, as you pointed out.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

is why remembering them is step one. When Given A then B turns out to be C. Maybe A is not given, there's no then, wasn't really B anyway and look again to see if it really was C. I must admit I tend to assume I'm right, but I stop doing that as some small irritating fact indicates there's a miniscule possibility I might not be. Logic, a really clever way of being wrong....

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