Remembering the important bits when you need them

I’m working my way through the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, which is a collection of essays from academic researchers who study expertise.

Chapter 6 discusses the ability of experts to recall information that’s relevant to the task at hand. This is one of the differences between experts and novices: a novice might answer questions about a subject correctly on a test, but when faced with a real problem that requires that knowledge, they aren’t able to retrieve it.

The researchers K. Anders Ericsson and Walter Kintsch had an interesting theory about how experts do better at this than novices. The theory goes like this: when an expert encounters some new bit of information, they have the ability to encode that information into their long-term memory in association with a collection of cues of when that information would be relevant.

In other words, experts are able to predict the context when that information might be relevant in the future, and are able to use that contextual information as a kind of key that they can use to retrieve the information later on.

Now, think about reading an incident write-up. You might learn about a novel failure mode in some subsystem your company uses (say, a database), as well as the details that led up to it happening, including some of the weird, anomalous signals that were seen earlier on. If you have expertise in operations, you’ll encode information about the failure mode into your long term memory and associate it with the symptoms. So, the next time you see those symptoms in production, you’ll remember this failure mode.

This will only work if the incident write-up has enough detail to provide you with the cues that you need to encode in your memory. This is another reason to provide a rich description of the incident. Because the people reading it, if they’re good at operations, will encode the details of the failure mode into their memory. If it happens again, and they read the write up, they’ll remember.

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