Inverted apprenticeships: How senior experts flip their collaborations with novices to adapt to disruptive technology

The skills gap between junior and senior occupational members has become more pronounced with the introduction of new technology. Senior experts, who are used to previous tools, struggle to keep up with the technological expertise they need to succeed, while their newer counterparts often race ahead to new frontiers. Research from Matt Beane (Department of Technology Management at UCSB) and Callen Anthony (NYU Stern School of Business) is now showing that senior experts fix this imbalance through “inverted apprenticeships”—a previously unstudied relationship between seniors and juniors that enables senior learning. Beane and Anthony’s paper shows that inverted apprenticeships help close this skills gap, but most often at a cost. Out of the inverted apprenticeships they observed, the majority negatively impacted both juniors and seniors. The only type of inverted apprenticeship that did foster a deep technological understanding for both seniors and juniors was also one of the rarer ones. However, this final example offered significant lessons that could be emulated elsewhere.

Beane and Anthony’s ethnographic research looked into two occupations: urological surgery and investment banking. For urological surgery, data collection spanned two studies, covering 18 hospitals, 94 procedures, participant observations, and interviews. In investment banking, data was collected over a 18-month field research period involving participant observations, interviews, and daily involvement in the department's activities. Four pathways of inverted apprenticeship were evident across these contexts. Each of these pathways appeared based on specific circumstances that occurred across these very different occupations, and should therefore appear in many others.

The most common pathways for inverted apprenticeships were stalling and leveraging. Stalling, evident in urological surgery, occurred when senior surgeons slowed down the adoption of a more precise surgical system to maintain their current approaches. Senior surgeons in this situation felt that they were already skilled in and well-compensated for their older methods, and would often suppress training or wait until the last minute before agreeing to adopt new technologies. This resulted in losses for hiring talent, their own credibility as surgeons, and their eventual ability to serve their clientele. Leveraging, which was seen in investment banking, occurred when senior bankers acted as if very little had changed, instead relying on their status to motivate junior members to surreptitiously teach them about the technology. Because the analytical technology that junior bankers were using was more peripheral to senior bankers, junior bankers were able to provide them with the information they needed without breaking the established hierarchy. Both stalling and leveraging resulted in a large number of senior workers with a superficial understanding of newer technologies, but without the actual skill to use them. Stalling and leveraging also negatively impacted junior workers, causing them to spend more time teaching or struggling in the dark in comparison to their senior counterparts. 

Confronting—the third pathway for inverted apprenticeship—still produced generally negative results. This occurred when senior surgeons avoided new technology while using their interactions with junior members to learn enough to critique the new system. Senior surgeons who engaged in confronting saw using new technology as either inferior or only marginally better than prior tools. They deliberately avoided it and relied on their expertise with older methods to prove that they didn’t need to change to get good results. Any expertise that they gained regarding the new technology was gleaned to berate it and their juniors’ use of it. This pathway resulted in senior surgeons developing shallow knowledge of technology that was biased against it. Junior workers were often torn between wanting to learn to use the new technology and being scared off from it by their seniors, thereafter not becoming proficient in either. 

In the end, only one inverted apprenticeship pathway significantly benefited both parties: seeking. This occurred when senior workers orchestrated opportunities to learn from their juniors as they collaboratively explored the new technology. Senior workers who engaged in seeking gained a deep understanding of the new technologies they were using. Not only that, but junior workers who collaborated with them also benefited, as senior workers could look at the new technology through their experience and provide templates and annotated guides to their juniors that made using it easier. While this type of apprenticeship was rare, it was surprisingly shown to appear in both urological surgery and investment banking—and was shown to be successful in both contexts. 

So what made seeking different? Beane and Anthony’s research suggests that the answer doesn’t lie in senior workers’ experience or proficiency with technology. Instead, senior workers needed to believe that technical expertise would improve their position within their peer group—not degrade it. If they believed that becoming an expert in this new technology would differentiate them positively from other senior workers, or that knowing more about the technology could allow them to maintain their authority over junior members’ inconsistencies, they would be more likely to take the risk. They would willingly lower their practical experience in front of their colleagues in order to gain a better position overall. 

How can you promote the “Seeking” pathway in your organization? 

If you have your sights on new technology, it’s important to acknowledge how this change affects the existing dynamic amongst expert and novice workers in your organization. Steps should be taken in advance to ensure that the inverted apprenticeships that form between your senior and junior employees are as successful as possible. 

Here are four ways you can position your organization for the smoothest learning curve: 

  • Be decisive about technology. As a leader, it is your responsibility to identify potentially disruptive technologies, test their potential value for your organization, and then either firmly decline them or commit your organization to integrating them. Less functional inverted apprenticeships arise when leaders are unclear or indecisive about disruptive tools.
  • Create incentives for seniors to familiarize themselves with new technology. They should see the new technology as a way to uphold or improve their position, instead of viewing themselves in competition with their juniors. Some ways to incentivize this action include recognizing and celebrating senior experts who contribute to technological advancements or developing programs that reward seniors for active learning.
  • Implement collaborative, exploratory projects between juniors and seniors. Establish spaces where senior and junior employees can explore the possibilities associated with potentially disruptive technology, share their assessments with others, and engage with those who have reservations. Make solid data a key premise for these projects so that hearsay and empty claims don’t win the day. Likewise, encourage teams to use and highlight the strengths of both their experienced and junior professionals.
  • Adjust performance metrics to match with new technologies. Update the parameters that are used to evaluate your employees to foster an open environment that prioritizes learning. Employees should feel that adapting to new technology will help them in their performance reviews and improve their reputation amongst their peers. 

All levels of employees, senior and junior, play important roles in cultivating the expertise that is at the beating heart of any organization. However, the gaps between them are often overlooked. This research shines a light on the natural patterns that form in established hierarchies when prior direction isn’t provided, and with it, how we can implement changes that ensure the most ideal outcome. 

What’s next? 

Share this with FacebookShare this with TwitterShare this with LinkedInShare this with RedditShare this with EmailPrint this