Expertise location without technology

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —June 26, 2006
Filed in Insight

Some of my favourite bloggers are talking about expertise location recently. Jack Vinson provides a good summary. Luis Suarez riffs off Dennis McDonald, who has a couple of posts on the topic (here and here). All these posts make good points about expertise location and each is written from the perspective that an organisation can enhance its expertise locating capabilities with the use of technology. I agree with their ideas but just for a moment I would like to explore an alternative perspective: what if we put effort in helping individuals find relevant expertise when they need it and without the use of technology? What would people need to learn? Imagine the increased effectiveness of an organisation if the individuals could do this well.

My first suggestion to an expertise hunter is let the expertise find you. It’s easy. Just talk about your need. Have you ever needed to find a new dentist? Did you go silently looking through the yellow pages and were confronted with hundreds of names and had no idea which one to choose? Or did you mention your need in passing at every opportunity; “actually I’m looking for a new dentist at the moment. It’s a killer to find a good one.” I’ll bet the latter strategy resulted in more useful recommendations—of course this technique assumes you are talking to people.

The next expertise locating skill I’d help people develop is what I call pre-emptive expertise location. Let me give you an example of what I mean. Yesterday the family and I took a ride into the countryside and visited Dromkeen, a children’s literature museum. It was illustrator day and Katie Byrne was talking to the kids about the illustrations she has done for a new set of books. I thought, “Wow, what a talent!” and asked for her contact details. I didn’t exactly know how I might need this talent in the future but knew it might be hard to find her again when I did. Gathering potential expertise around you is an effective technique.

We all know that social networks are important for locating expertise. The sense I get, however, from people writing on this topic is that effort in building the connection is only needed at the time when the expertise is sought. This couldn’t be further than the truth. To be good at finding expertise you need to be connected before you need the expertise. If you are not the social butterfly you need to get out your butterfly net and find yourself one (or a whole collection). Join communities, know the connectors (here are some ways to finding connectors) and get good at noticing expertise.

Hmmm, how do you notice expertise? Firstly we need an idea of what we think expertise is. Gary Klein says this of experts:

“Experts see the world differently. They see things the rest of us cannot. Often experts do not realise that the rest of us are unable to detect what seems obvious to them.”

This is one of the reasons why finding expertise can be tough and perhaps explains why the expertise location software industry has been less than stellar. That is, expertise is more than simply possessing a skill. Klein describes eight aspects of expertise which I’ve summarised but would recommend you read Klein.

  1. Patterns: with experience experts can discern patterns that are invisible to novices. They have a good sense of what’s typical and can therefore detect the extraordinary.
  2. Anomalies: experts are surprised when a key event is absent while novices don’t know what is supposed to happen and therefore don’t pick up on the anomaly.
  3. The way things work: experts have mental models of how things work—how teams are supposed to work, equipment is supposed to function, power and politics is normally wielded.
  4. Opportunities and improvisations: Experts can imagine possibilities that contradict the prevailing viewpoint and data. They can also apply patterns from one context to a new situation creating new approaches and techniques.
  5. Past and future: experts can predict what might happen in the future. Just ask a grade 5 teacher about what the kids will be like at the beginning and the end of the year.
  6. Fine discriminations: experts can see differences which remain invisible to novices. Just think of expert wine tasters.
  7. Self aware: experts are aware of their own thought processes.
  8. Decision makers: experts can make decisions under time pressure.

OK, so how do we notice all these characteristics? Gossip. Yes, gossip. Now it’s important to remember that gossip is simply when we talk about someone when they are not present at the conversation—that is, gossip is not always negative. So gossip is when people tell stories about others that retell what happened. Hearing stories about the performance of others is the second best way to notice expertise. The best way is to work with them. Consequently to become an expert in locating expertise you need a variety of experiences with a range of people. With an amount of self reflection and a preponderance for asking questions you can develop your expertise-locating capability.

OK, you probably can tell that these are very preliminary thoughts. I wonder what else you might do to help people develop their individual capability to find expertise.

Some related posts:

Klein, G. 1998. Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. Cambridge MA: The MIT Press.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. joitske says:

    Hi, I wonder which book by Klein you are refering to?

  2. Hi Joitske, it’s sources of power. I put the reference at the bottom of the post.

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