The problem with expertise

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It is believed that one important step in the success of a business is how efficiently resources are transformed into products. In knowledge intensive business, the main resource is identified as human learning or expertise. However, treating knowledge as a resource will lead to practices that actually inhibit value creation. Networked business environments call for a new definition of expertise as something that develops and occurs in interaction, not as a personal quality to identify and exploit.  

Expertise refers to refined skills or extensive knowledge in a given field. The best expertise often stems from a personal passion that leads to high motivation, immersion and hours of training. When a person becomes part of a work organization, the fruits of this passion are utilized as part of a predefined work process. This may lead to situations where it becomes a measure of a person’s worth, the basis of status or a sort of commodity, which is unfortunate for the organization as well as the individual. From the perspective of the organization, treating expertise as a resource will decrease its value, and from the perspective of the expert, restrict learning and personal development.

The reason is that if expertise is an exploitable resource that defines a person’s place and worth within an organization, it will lead to practices where information is not shared. If your worth within an organization is based on a special skill, this worth will diminish if you teach the skill to someone else. This thought is in turn based on the misunderstanding that scarcity will increase the value of knowledge as it does for physical resources. The confusion about the nature of information is catastrophic for organizations in knowledge intensive business. Staying relevant in changing environments requires continuous interaction around central content. Sharing and interaction are the most important processes to increasing value and developing the quality of information.

On a personal level, the resource-view of expertise can stagnate personal development. If expertise is something that is contained within an individual and released for pay, there is no room for admitting lack of knowledge. What people pay for when they pay an expert is certainty. Admitting that there is room for error would be admitting that you, your product or service has low quality.

Expertise is also often sought for outside the organization. Typically expert opinions are obtained to give meaning to complicated occurrences or to predict future happening from complex data. People are easily influenced and persuaded by experts even though it has long been known that expert judgment is prone to the same biases as anyone else’s thinking. What kind of service is then actually being acquired? Experts who offer a clear narrative of a situation create a sense of cognitive ease. Cognitive ease creates an illusion of truth. Relying on others’ expertise is used as a heuristic, to save energy. However, in complex environments, relying on the feeling of cognitive ease and heuristics should not be they way to go.

When seeking expert advice, we should look for interaction that produces a feeling of cognitive unease and strain because that tells us that learning is taking place. Instead of finding an expert who can create a nice story that puts us at ease, we should be looking for people who can ask the right questions and with whom we can learn. 

For individuals, the way to advance is to find a way to know less and stay uncomfortable. As soon as you are cognitively at ease you know that you are not learning. The most important thing for an individual is to find environments and relationships where learning is possible. Learning benefits from confusion, and wavering performance predicts better learning results. When we reward people at work for steady performance, we are actually rewarding them for not learning. Work organizations that wish to thrive need to become places that allow cognitive unease, confusion, unreliable performance.  

The amount of information available, the development of artificial intelligence and the fast pace of technological advancement may make some people feel that narrow expertise is becoming obsolete. But in fact, expertise is more important now than ever. When learning is the key process of work, personal passion will be its most important driver. The problem is not that people acquire expertise but that at the moment, it cannot grow in business environments. Allowing feelings of unease, uncertainty and confusion are the first steps towards a more learning-intensive interaction.

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2 comments
    • Thank you! And thanks for the link, I will definitely check your stuff out!

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