There is a Problem with Expertise

Saturday, December 3rd, 2016

Accident prevention, crisis management, and innovation share some challenges: the need to connect across different disciplines and expertises, the need to understand different kinds of knowledge, and the need to hold differing perspectives simultaneously. There are some problems with expertise today which are preventing this.

Problem #1: Expertise has become deep and narrow

Expertise has become more highly specialized than ever. Consider that in the 17th century an educated person could likely understand and maybe even build every physical thing in their environment. Since then, countless professions have emerged, and we are all highly specialized. In academic circles today there is concern about how narrow our expertise and our professions have become, often favoured by the job market over a broad and wide view.

Different professions develop their own lingo and sometimes we are alienated by a lack of common ground in knowledge, or language. Specialized knowledge can get locked into individual specialists, and not be easily share-able.

Many accidents, in the aftermath, have been found to have at cause, this very misunderstanding. Oil spills, rocket ships – examples abound of situations where someone knew there was a problem, but someone who needed to know did not hear them.

Problem #2: Everyone is an expert

Many of us are experts in one way or another. Expertise is subjective, and very much depends on your vantage point.

Experts often disagree so it is no longer the case that once everyone is simply “informed” decisions will be easier to make. Knowledge is not binary, in that you do or do not have it. We can’t just “throw” knowledge over the wall.

Problem #3: We misunderstand the nature of knowledge

Sometimes knowledge is situated knowledge, i.e. “it depends on…”, for example, where you live. Local knowledge (or “Traditional knowledge”) in Northern Canada is incorporated into governmental decision-making processes. For example, the Inuit have knowledge about wildlife pathways which is considered along with other more “scientific” findings in order to make resource and transit decisions.

Sometimes a layperson’s knowledge contains information that science has not accepted yet. After Chernobyl, countless experts arrived in rural England to counsel the farmers about their livestock and produce. The farmers had already discovered that the sheep in valleys were much better off than those higher up but this was in no way part of the formal knowledge being presented to them. Eventually the scientists found a rational explanation for this and it was adapted into their communications.

Much knowledge is tacit, as opposed to codified, and very hard to capture. This is the kind of knowledge people share in person, or within relationships, but has typically been impossible to capture in expert systems, or via other knowledge management efforts. What Zen Master goes and writes a manual? Mostly they take on apprentices.

So what next?

We need to find ways to connect and communicate across all different expertises and kinds of knowledge. Innovation today occurs in the spaces in between: in between professions, in between traditional university disciplines, and in between organisational silos.

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