Your help with the new expertise

This article appears in the issue July/August 2009, [Vol 18, Issue 7]


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I’d like your help.

I’m working on something about what’s happening to expertise in this new world we’re building for ourselves. I’m focusing on how businesses are using experts, and how that’s changing. But I need your ideas and, most of all, your stories.

My hypothesis is that the network is now shaping experts the way books did. You remember books, don’t you? They were those boxy things that contained everything you needed to know about a topic. They had authority, if only because they had to go through some sort of filtering and judging process. They were written by experts, they were proof that an expert was an expert, and they were actually sort of like experts: credentialed, required to know just about everything about a topic, full of content.

That description of experts—or stereotype or cultural icon—is especially relevant to the sort of experts who are professional know-ers. After all, we hope that everyone in a business is expert at her job. The welders are expert welders, and the HR folks are expert at hiring people. Expertise itself has been with us as long as we’ve had crafts that we could do better or worse. But that’s different from the experts who are not expert at something so much as expert in some area. They’re the people who have the luxury of spending full time learning about an area. They’re the ones you hire when a decision is just too big or a field is just too unsettled.

We’ve all met experts of that sort who are wholly admirable. At times they are astounding. They know so much. They are irreplaceable, and as we enter the Web age, they’re not going away. If anything, the Web lets them do their research more rapidly and thoroughly than ever.

What’s changing is the framework within which those content experts work. And overall, I think that’s a good thing. (But maybe you disagree. If you have stories that contradict what I’m about to say, please let me know.) After all, traditional content experts—full-time masters of a domain—hit certain limitations. For one thing, there’s too much for any one person to know. The vast body of information and ideas now available to any of us has the ironic effect of making us relatively more ignorant, since the amount of available knowledge increases so much faster than our ability to learn it.

To make matters worse (worse for experts but better for business overall), not only does the amount of information in any field outpace even the most dedicated expert, we are now able to link up ideas across fields. Being an expert in your one field is no longer enough when other fields are affecting it. That’s why we are seeing increasing references to Isaiah Berlin’s notion that there are not just hedgehogs—people who know a lot about one thing—but also foxes who know a lot about a little. As fields get linked, we need foxes to run across them, making sense of the emerging patterns.

But the real limitation of traditional experts is the set of expectations under which they labor. In many instances, businesses value experts not just for their advice, but also for the cover they provide: We pay them in part for their certainty, and not just for their knowledge. Nothing wrong with that, so long as their advice is good. And who doesn’t need a moment or two of believing that everything is under control? But that comforting picture of the world—one in which very smart people known as "experts" can provide answers to impossibly hard questions—can mask some new and greater possibilities by focusing too much on expertise as what goes on in the massive craniums of experts.

Instead, assume for the moment that just as books shaped our traditional idea of experts, the network is shaping our new idea of them. Many of the properties of the network become properties of the new expertise: loosely connected "clouds" of people, where the value of the conversation far exceeds the value of mental contents of any of the participants. Rather than being definitive, the new expertise wants to surface all sides and watch them disagree, because there’s often more truth in honest disagreement than in a settled agreement. The new expertise, like the network that enables it, isn’t bowled over by credentials; how you carry on the discussion is more important than what you carry into it. New forms of credentialing emerge that are more relevant to the local issues. The people on the network are probably not full-time experts, which has the benefit of meaning they may well still have their sleeves rolled up doing the job they’re talking about. The experts are also, of course, not all contained within the business itself; the network of experts may include customers, competitors and snarky strangers. Of course, like the network, the new expertise can be gamed, can be full of hot air and can fall into its own self-reinforcing patterns. That is something we have to learn to guard against.

I would love to hear your thoughts, your stories and your push back. In particular, if you know of a business that is experimenting with the new networked expertise, please let me know via e-mail at self@evident.com.

For you are the network of experts I’m relying on. Thanks!  


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