I watched a film last night about a runaway train. The basic premise was that the driverless train was heading at high speed (complete with toxic cargo) towards the town and inevitable disaster. Luckily, a second train, crewed by two heroic figures, was hot in pursuit, supported by the signalmen back at base.
One of the drivers was the grizzled old hand, 28 years on the trains. The other was young, two months in the job. Back at the yard was the conveniently passing Federal Safety Inspector to support them, bespectacled, bearded, suited, full of facts and figures. It was as stereotyped a set of characters as you could ever see. The dialogue came broadly down to the old hand saying ‘I just know’ and the experts calculating everything with spreadsheets and science.
Naturally the old hand won the day, with the muscular support of his young assistant and a bit of brain power from back at base, experience triumphing over science, counter culture winning the day, but it bought into mind these different notions of authority and power.
People gain their credibility and authority in different ways, as is well recognised in society. People have positional authority, power that comes from the job they are in. A policeman is a good example of this, where it is the uniform and associated authority that gives them their power. Some people have expert power, authority that comes from their knowledge and skills. Steven Hawking is an example of this, someone who is respected for his incredible intelligence.
Training and development typically relies on the authority of teacher, the implicit assumption that the teacher has authority through knowledge and experience, whilst the student is there to learn. There is a natural dynamic to the equation, although even within teaching there are usually two clearly defined routes to authority: academic and industry experience.
A balanced model of learning indicates that both knowledge and experience are important. Too much emphasis on knowledge and you’ll be taking an academic approach that bears little resemblance to reality, whilst if you focus too much on the experiential side of things, you will lack the rigour and discipline of the academic. I guess you could label the ideal approach as ‘holistic’.
Whilst the characters in the film are wildly polarised and one dimensional, it’s interesting to note the way that there are plenty of individuals who achieve excellence through exactly that, through extreme subject matter knowledge, through extremely well honed physical skills, through being a survivor.
Whatever our source of authority or power, i imagine that the thing we should most avoid is failing to recognise the value in all of these approaches. Experience is great, theory valuable, everything in moderation, giving us a balanced view. Maybe it’s more this type of juggling that we should be training. A hunch is not enough, but a hunch supported by evidence may be just the thing.