In previous postings, I’ve pointed out that we're living in a world of exponential change and that this is affecting all of us in many different ways. You can find my thoughts and references on this with a quick search on exponential change on OCOT as well as my overall article and podcast.
To continue with this theme, today I'd like to explore how this world of exponential change has affected our concept of expertise and experts. Has it changed as well? What do you do when you need some assistance and there are no experts to be found based on our traditional definitions?
The rapid introduction of technologies such as entire new programing languages, new software and hardware; or on the social side, things like social networking, un-conference event models, and so on, challenge our understanding of expertise, and our traditional models and techniques for obtaining expertise and for finding those who have it.
While it is often true that there are very few completely new ideas and so many very new things are based on very old ideas, previous work, models and products, it still seems as if we are seeing more that are truly new and different. Being so new, we have no Ph.D programs, certification programs, or other credentials in place, and in many cases, not very much experience or expertise at all because these technologies and models are new to everyone. It helps in part that large scale adoption of anything new typically takes 10 or more years (see this “Long Nose” post by Erik Duval for more on this) but it often takes even longer for us to establish the traditional forms of denoting expertise and creating the experts themselves. What do we do in the meantime and even more so what do we do as the rate of change trends ever upwards? Will our traditional models continue to work at all? For example:
- What does this mean for “boards” or other committees of experts for an organization, company, association? If these are becoming less effective what is the better choice?
- In the absence of any “formal” credentials, how to you find and deploy individual experts and consultants?
- Is there a value to a “panel of experts” at a conference? If so, who should be on the panel?
- How does our understanding of new more contrarian models such as “wisdom of the crowds” and the “Blink” approach affect our definition and use of experts?
You get the idea, and I’m sure you can come up with your own list as well.
I quite like and often quote Einstein’s observation that:
"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."
More often though, I think our problem is that we are restricted by our thinking which as been shaped by the previous paradigm and so we search for solutions to the new paradigm from within the old. As we seek to find and develop solutions to this new challenge of identifying and finding expertise and experts, we can take advantage of the way other things are growing exponentially. For example:
- The degree to which these technologies can help us find and connect with others who are focused on the new “thing” we are interested in. There are usually many more experts and more expertise out there than we assume or were previously able to find.
- The increased exposure more and more of us are having to new products, programs and ideas and therefore pursuing our curiosity with them thus taking the first steps towards developing more expertise.
- The increased access and availability for learning about and experimenting with these new ideas, products and services. This is especially true in the form of the more informal learning we are increasingly doing through our daily forms of (re)search, reading, listening and otherwise consuming the exponential growth of “content” available to us.
Experts "R" Us!
So how do we find the right experts and expertise at the right time? First, we need to get better at finding expertise that often goes unnoticed or remains unknown to us. If you don’t know it’s there, then it essentially doesn’t exist! In my experience, we often fail to find experts because it doesn’t appear in most people’s job description or title. Have you ever had the experience of meeting someone AFTER a project was over (typically in an informal setting) and realizing that they have this incredible expertise and experience? Have you caught yourself saying something like “Where were you when I needed you?” And worst of all, did you find that they were right under your proverbial nose, right next door or even already working for or with you?
I’ve long advocated that we need to work to dramatically scale up the amount of metadata we have for each of us. By this I mean the enormous list of individual attributes that define and describe us as unique individuals—deeply detailed metadata inventories of our skills, competencies, experiences, aptitudes, attitudes, knowledge and so on—and have it all being dynamically updated on a constant basis as we acquire new skills, have new experiences as well as those we lose from lack of use. Just imagine how valuable it would be to find just the right person at just the right time when you need to add someone to a project team or have a question you need answered or an idea to test out.
Exponential Growth of Experts?
And perhaps most of all, we need to consider the potential of developing more expertise within each and every one of our exponentially expanding world population (currently 6.7 Billion and counting!). We need to learn to see and find the expertise in all of us, both collectively and individually. By collective, I am thinking of the growing awareness and understanding of the latent expertise that lies within a large group of people. This idea is nicely captured in James Surowiecki’s book “Wisdom of the Crowds”. This is increasingly happening as we become more and more connected to more and more people and things.
Individually I am thinking that if something is very new, then an “expert” could be defined as whomever has the most experience—often the individuals who have been early adopters, high risk takers, and those who jumped in from the beginning and have the most experiential learning as a result. If you believe, as do I, that every one of us has some degree of expertise and our numbers and our amount of expertise is growing at an ever faster rate, then therein lies much of the solution to the problem of finding experts for the exponential growth of new ideas, products, and services. It all sounds very “loopy” (consider the source!), but it seems to me that we can indeed invert Einstein's observation and best find solutions for a new paradigm from within the NEW paradigm.
We probably need to get much better at learning in real time as we jump in and try out these new products, services and ideas. We need to get better at doing a lot of post-mortems to analyze what worked, what didn’t would be smart. Getting over our apparent reluctance to admit to or review failures, and instead learn from what doesn’t work well. If increasingly more things are very new and we have less and less experience with them, should we not expect to be in an almost constant state of exploration and discovery and expect “failure” to be more common than success?
I don’t mean "failure"in a negative sense, nor do I mean that failure should become the goal. Rather, learning from what doesn’t work seems in my experience to be at least as valuable or more so than that which does. We’ve long known about the value of “practice” but usually separate and distinguish this from “the real thing” and regard practice as what we do to get ready for the real performance. Perhaps we now live in a world where ALL we do is practice and strive for continuous improvement.
But I also believe in the old adage that “the more things change the more they stay the same”, and so we will continue to have the more traditional types of experts who are deeply specialized. They will remain highly valuable and sought after. However, given the enormity of the number of problems we have to solve, both large societal ones and small daily ones, and the fact that these are growing exponentially, we need, as they say,
"all the help we can get." And I for one simply can’t imagine how we can be effective in solving problems through linear approaches, such as continuing to depend upon our traditional model and definition of expertise.
As we start to live and work in this world of exponential change, we need to think exponentially as well. We need develop solutions and models which scale exponentially. Rethinking our definition of expertise and experts to be on more of a sliding scale and where we assume that each and every one of us have valuable expertise to offer seems to me the best direction to head as we search for more experts like you and me!