Challenging two assumptions in expertise location

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —July 7, 2006
Filed in Communication

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:


  1. Matt Moore says:

    The critical thing to remember about expertise is that people rarely (if ever) what to locate an expert for the sake of doing so. There is a problem or challenge they wish to tackle. Their end goal is to meet that challenge.
    The kinds of experts they engage & how they engage them is defined by that challenge.
    A second point is: that challenge (or how it is viewed) may not be static as different experts are engaged in different ways.

  2. Very good points Matt. I would add to that that ‘expert’ is a slippery term. It turns out that we learn more from someone who is only a bit ahead of our own expertise rather than someone who is leaps and bounds ahead.
    So true about the challenge changing as the search ensues. Back in the 80’s I was given the job to find the algorithms that formed the basis for Geographic Information Systems. So I looked for ‘spatial algorithms’, geographic algorithms and a myriad of other similar terms and came up blank. I evertually met a research at CSIRO who laughed and said, “try ‘computational geometry'” and I did and discovered all the information I needed was published in the 60s. Now this is probably not exactly what you meant but the seeker does refines and changes what they are looking for during the search.
    Are there key references from the information sciences discipline that describe the expertise location process Matt? Or are the librarian community mainly interested in finding information rather than people?

  3. This is a very interesting topic for me. Expertise on a specific topic might reside in one individual. It might reside holographically in a group. Or a combination of these two.

    My interest is both how engage their expertise and also how to train that expertise in someone else. Or to put it another way, how to best groom a successor, or bring a new member of the group up to speed. There is, at least from my research, only a few practical methods out there on how to do this…

  4. Dave says:

    Expertise is by necessity “in culture.” The generalist is “on culture” at best. You may enter a culture via a book. You may traverse a culture via a book. But, to truely be part of the culture, you will have to meet and talk to others in that culture.
    The expert on silicon-on-chip has first to become an electronic engineer, then a semiconductor engineer, then …, and finally a SOC expert. They traverse the knowledge terrain learning to think like a practitioner. Thinking like makes one a subscriber to a particular ontology and to a particular identity within a culture.
    Expertise doesn’t happen to lone individuals.
    By the time you get your masters degree, you should know who knows what–you become part of a social network.

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