Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Unfolding process of Cognitive talent

What is talent 

As human beings, we use our five senses, our body muscles, and our cognitive abilities - combination of all three in different proportion - to perform a task. Initially our performance in  a task is average. If we however practice it repeatedly, slowly and surely, we manage to acquire a talent in performing that task. Talent is not a 'potential' ability; it is a demonstrated ability in a person who can replicate the performance of a task  consistently in different situations.

A singer primarily uses his sense of 'hearing' along with his body muscle of 'vocal chord' to sing. His task is to sing. A sportsman, like a batsman, primarily uses his hand/body movements to coordinate with his ' visual sense' of judging the ball's trajectory. His task is batting. An innovator primarily uses his 'cognitive abilities' to rearrange the earlier thoughts of innovators along with his psychomotor skills to create a new engine, a computer or just draft a new idea. His task is innovating an engine. All three performers use all three sets of abilities, but the emphasis on each of the ability is varied. 

We therefore call dancer as an Aesthetic performer (because he primarily uses his five aesthetic senses), sportsman as a Psychomotor performer (because he primarily uses his finely honed muscle movements) and knowledge worker as Cognitive performer (because he primarily uses his cognitive ability to categorise data and correlate with other unlinked categories).

A&P performers can easily 'name' a task ( which they want to excel and convert it into a talent),  such as dancing, painting or playing cricket, to identify their talent zone. Cognitive performers, on the other hand, find it difficult to identify their task because cognitive task is multi-dimensional.

What is cognitive talent/task

In knowledge work, a cognitive task requires a combination of
- Subject Knowledge in specialities and sub specialities such as mechanical engineering ( not just engineering) or civil law (not just law)
- Domain Knowledge about domains such as manufacturing, banking, software, and
- Accompanying set of Skills based on the type of jobs such as front end jobs like sales and service and back-end jobs like  manufacturing, design or quality.

Unlike singe-dimensional tasks in aesthetic and psychomotor fields, cognitive task in knowledge work is multi-dimensional. It demands a combination of subject knowledge, domain knowledge and accompanying skills. Because of this multi-dimensionality, knowledge work exists in multiple varieties.

Unfolding of Cognitive talent

Talent unfolding process of A&P performer is well known and understood by researchers. Cognitive/knowledge performers can use this knowledge to guide them. Both A&P performer and cognitive performer use four phases of talent unfolding, although the duration and challenges faced in each of them differ widely. If you observe these differences closely, you will be able to anticipate the challenges better if you are a cognitive performer.

1. Talent exploration of A&P performer versus Ability exploration of cognitive/knowledge performer 

Because of uni-dimensional nature of task, A&P performer can chose his talent zone, say of dancing, at the age of 5, because the task of dancing at the age of 5 remains same when he becomes 25. His talent exploration phase commences at the age of 5-7 and continues for next 4/5 years to explore different options.

For cognitive performer, his cognitive ability exploration starts at the age of 6 and continues till the age of 22. Slowly and surely, he funnels his resources on a narrower area to increase his chances of developing his talent. For instance, by the end of high school, he chooses to focus on a narrow area of engineering or accounts. Later he may continue to narrow down the focus further, by say choosing to do a post graduation in a specific technology, or a course in law.

Knowledge about Data to Knowledge conversion will go a long way in helping a cognitive performer in making smart choices and even to guide him better in identifying and nurturing his abilities.

2. Talent development of A&P versus Competency development of cognitive/knowledge performer 

Once the talent (either of piano or violin) is decided at the end of Talent exploration phase, A&P performer starts developing his talent from the age of 9-10 and commits all his efforts and time in developing his talent for next 6-10 years. He gets all the necessary help from his coaches, support from parents, to develop all the necessary skills to become the top class in his talent.

Cognitive performer, on the other hand, choses a task or job at the end of Ability exploration phase. While choosing his job, he unwittingly choses his domain. The domain chosen could be automobiles, Image processing or software. Even if a person choses to join a BPO, he works in a specific domain, such as mobile call handling or financial products selling.  

While engaging in a task/job, cognitive performer converts his abilities into competency. In a competency, an individual has to synthesise his subject knowledge, domain knowledge, and develop accompanying skills required to perform the task. An engineer may join sales department of a Engineering and construction company and develop his Sales competency, or a CA may join a MIS department and develop his competency in 'Management decision making'.

While A&P performer takes long time ( 8-10 years) to develop his uni-dimensional talent, competency development takes shorter time frame of 2-3 years. Unlike A&P performer, cognitive performer gets no assistance from anyone either to identify the gap in the skill or to fill the gap quickly. For instance, many cognitive performers suffer poorly in their task due to lack of basic skill of perception-management.

As such, process of competency development is not well understood, and neither coaches are used as guide. This often lead to several changes in the work-path of a cognitive performer. This is why you see many cognitive performers change many jobs in the first part of their work-life: sales engineers becoming design engineers, software engineers leaving software, or salesman moving from selling medicines to selling shampoos.

Some cognitive performers, who succeed in their first task, develop multiple competencies one after another. The example of Noble Prize winner, Venkatram Ramkrishnan, depicts this development of multiple competencies vividly.

Some cognitive performers, though, find their their unique competency quickly and, instead of developing another competency, develop the same in a focussed manner.  Like A&P performers, they engage in Talent development.  I know of many Sales professionals, for example, who have spend considerable part of their lives in developing their Sales competency into an exceptional talent. Management consultants, trainers, Consultants in Engineering, Lawyers, Software and hardware engineers are some other examples. They are the happier lot of cognitive performers because they have found their element. 

3. Talent expression phase of A&P versus Competency convergence of Cognitive/Knowledge performer

For A&P performer, this is the stage where they express their uniqueness. Till now they were involved in the technical mastery of their talent area, be it violin or piano or chess. At this stage, they 'leave behind' all the technical mastery in their armory, and develop their own 'style' or 'innovation', which is truly unique.

Some cognitive performers use their multiple competencies to find an area where they can use all their developed competencies. They find a task where, everything they have achieved in life, becomes useful to them in their new task. This is converging all the competencies together in one task. I have met many corporate professionals who do not reach this phase at all.

4. Talent embedding phase 

This phase is common to both A&P and cognitive performers. Till this phase, the talent was an 'end' for which all their activities and decisions were meant to support. In this phase, they find a purpose or value where their talent becomes a 'means' to achieve the 'higher end'. Talent, instead of leading, becomes the follower. Talent is embedded in the lives of the performers. Nandan Nilekani's work as UAID Head is one such example.


If you are a cognitive/knowledge performer, this is what is important to be remembered:

1. Ability Exploration: As compared to 4-5 years for A&P performers, your ability exploration phase is about 20 years long. Unlike A&P performer, you do not have to commit to a path early. That is both bane or a boon, depending how you use this period. In other words, to capitalise on the situation, you have to be one step ahead of the unfolding process.

2. Competency ( or talent) Development: Like A&P performers, you can focus on one unique competency and convert it into a talent. However, you also have another option. You can develop 2/3 major competencies in the next 10 years of life, provided you know how to do it.

Unlike A&P performer, you have lot of constraints though. During this phase, A&P has no family responsibilities. He also gets huge teaching/coaching support to develop his talent. On both counts, you have a handicap. You have to learn to develop competencies within your given constraints. That is why, you have to be one step ahead of the unfolding process. 

3. Competency convergence and talent embedding

Do not chase the illusive 'talent', as books seem to tell you. Just focus on 'converging your competencies'. If you are one step ahead of the unfolding process, you can jump this stage and move to the stage of talent embedding.

If you remain behind the unfolding process, you are constantly chasing, trying to control the damage. 

1 comment:

Abhishek Mishra said...

Amazing Article Sanjiv. Really appreciate the way you have put together this article.