There are two common assumptions made in expertise location approaches which we should not be taken for granted:
- expertise resides with an individual; and
- once you’ve found the right person or group, that a conversation will elicit what you need to know.
Individual expertise is a concept deeply embedded in how we think about experts. It’s the lone genius who makes the breakthroughs, the stellar performer, the exceptional leader. Of course people do have individual expertise and this concept of expertise matters most in individual pursuits. But what about expertise that arises as the result of a group of people working together? Cognition in the Wild by Edwin Hutchins, for example, describes how navigators on a US Navy ship had developed a distributed expertise.
“The larger system has cognitive properties very different from those of any individual. In fact the cognitive properties of the navigation team are at least twice removed from the cognitive properties of the individual members of the team.” (p. 226)
So in seeking expertise we need to aware that it might reside as an emergent property of a group. A couple of questions come to mind: how do you identify and learn from group expertise? How do you know you should be seeking group expertise?
If conversation was all we needed to elicit expertise the world’s journalists would be the most skilled and talented individuals on the planet. Bill Bryson provides a neat example. The Reverend Robert Evans lives in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, Australia. He’s also one of the world’s most successful super novae spotters. Bill devotes a whole chapter to how Robert spots these tiny specks of light in the sky. I can imagine Bill spending a couple of days with Robert talking about his techniques and experience. After interviewing Reverend Evans Bill can write an entertaining chapter but at best would be a novice super novae spotter.
Don’t get me wrong, these two assumptions are useful when the expertise you are seeking resides with an individual and the type of knowledge you need could be called ‘know what’ rather than ‘know how’. But the assumptions are not universally applicable. When thinking about developing approaches to finding expertise people would benefit from starting with an awareness that expertise can be contained in groups and expert knowledge is ‘sticky,’ especially if you are attempting to transfer know how (knowledge transfer is another large and complex topic).
Hutchins, E. 1995. Cognition in the wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Bryson, B. 2004. A Short History of Nearly Everything. London: Black Swan.
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: