Years ago, I asked a surgeon how they learnt a new procedure; you can’t operate on a patient with a textbook propped open on a convenient part of their body.
They said it was very simple; “you watch one, you do one, and you teach one”. This was an exciting idea. It connected with so much that I had experienced. You observe someone using an unfamiliar technique or concept. You see ‘how it is done’. You put what you have learned into practice. Finally, you cement and codify that learning by passing it on to another person.
I later discovered that under the name ‘see one, do one, teach one’, or SODOTO, it has been standard practice in the training of surgeons for many years.
SODOTO is all about transferring ‘tacit’ knowledge. The knowledge difficult to transfer by writing it down. All the things covered by words like touch, feel, experience, know-how and guile. Some people argue that tacit knowledge does not really exist. It is just an excuse for failure to think hard enough about how to break down and communicated topic. But that is not true. Tacit knowledge is real and important. There are so many things that you need to be ‘shown‘ how to do; from riding a bicycle to open-heart surgery.
Practical learning has history
Practical learning has a long history. The mediaeval apprenticeship, under the guidance of a master craftsman, taught the novice everything they needed to know about that trade. Not only the technical know-how of the silversmith or baker, but how to negotiate, how to sell, and how to get raw materials. Everything they would need to know to run a business of their own. Apprentices would watch, learn and practice until they were ready to show their skills with a ‘masterpiece’.
More recently, the method of “Sitting with Nellie” was common in factories. A new recruit would work alongside an experienced person who would show them what to do, and all the little tips and tricks that make the work flow smoothly. HR and training professionals are sniffy about this approach because Nellie, or Fred or whoever, are not trained educators. But despite their objections, this is not low-grade training. Better to be taught by someone who actually understands what happens on the production line than someone who knows how the production line works in theory and has a large collection of PowerPoint slides. After all, using the tacit knowledge of the workforce is the basis of the Japanese kaizen approach to continuous improvement.
It is hard to explain it in words
Learning by observation and practice brings benefits. This is a very simple demonstration I used to run in knowledge management workshops to show how hard it is to transfer knowledge using words alone.
Divide your group into two, put them in separate rooms, and arrange a telephone link between them. Give them both the parts for a very small Lego model (15 or so pieces), the kind of thing a real Lego expert (around age 7) could complete in a few minutes. Only one group has the instruction sheet, and they have to build their own model, and explain to the other group how to duplicate what they are doing over the phone. It is a difficult and frustrating task that most groups struggle with. However, give them a video link and no sound and a group without the instructions can complete the task just as fast as the first group, with no verbal or written clues.
“You can observe a lot by just watching” – Yogi Berra
YouTube is one of the most powerful current tools we have for transferring tacit knowledge. It is a remarkable library of people with various levels of skill showing you how to do things. During lockdown, YouTube has helped me to diagnose and fix my lawnmower, even though I already had the service manual. It has helped me to put a new door on my tumble dryer, improve my sketching skills, and nail down a new guitar piece. If I ever have a sudden urge to make a replica mediaeval broadsword, or create a piece of handmade lace, there is someone there to teach me.
YouTube is not perfect. It is not interactive, and there is no way to ask the expert questions or get them to show you a task from another angle. But for all kinds of practical skills, including business skills like making presentations and data analysis, it complements and adds to written descriptions. As Yogi Berra said, “you can observe a lot by just watching”.
To fix what you have learned, teach it
Having dealt with the ‘see one’, ‘do one’ phases, what about the ‘teach one’? People instinctively realise this. I am one of many who say, “I only truly understand what I am thinking when I try to explain it to someone else”. The need to teach forces you to codify your knowledge. What are the most important things for them to know? How can I demonstrate this skill? What exercises would help this person develop the skill? I don’t mean codify in the sense of a precise and reliable set of rules and procedures, we have agreed that is not possible for tacit knowledge, but the definition, scope and boundaries, and the steps needed to acquire the skill.
So, when I am trying to learn a new topic, I look for a chance to give a talk, write something or share what I have found out with a colleague.
“I only truly understand what I am thinking when I try to explain it to someone else”
SODOTO works. It is a great framework for acquiring knowledge and skills. And we can help each other improve with mutual support:
- Find a mentor or expert to help you. They can point you to the important features quickly and help you understand the context.
- If you can, ask to shadow or watch them at work. See how they use their expertise.
- Find a way to practice your new knowledge.
- If you have mastered something, be happy to share. Be generous with your time, you need help too.
- Be a good sounding board for other people’s ideas.
- If they ask, be honest with your evaluation. Particularly whether you understand what they are saying.
- Cherish people who will look at your ideas and give you an honest opinion.
- Don’t ask people what is right with your idea, ask them what is wrong with it. You make better progress that way.