Who are the experts?

Charles Nelson takes exception with my post on The Relevance of the Learning Profession:

There are two false assumptions here. One is that subverting hierarchy results in no experts …

The second is that “hyperlinks subvert hierarchy”.

I guess that we differ on the need for experts in a field. Dr. Nelson feels that experts are necessary, or “learning can become derailed or even stopped in its tracks.” He says that experts should proceed with humility, but that experts are necessary for our field to progress. We appear to be on divergent learning paths.

Today, expertise is being eroded in many fields. Medical doctors are confronted daily by patients who have researched a disease, from reputable sources, in greater depth than the doctor has time to do. Patients are becoming co-managers of their health. Even bloggers can get the scoop on expert journalists. It is getting difficult for anyone to be an expert other than in a very narrow field for a short period of time. As a consultant, I live this every day because I am only as good as my last project. Knowledge workers are like actors, we are only as good as our last performance. For a fleeting moment, we may be viewed as experts, but for not much longer.

Hierarchies and experts have a symbiotic relationship. Without hierarchies, no authority can tell us who is the expert. Were humans able to learn before there were hierarchies and experts? Would they be able to learn in spite of without experts?

Personally, I know that hyperlinks subvert hierarchies. That’s how a dispersed group of a dozen free-agents can out-manoeuver and under-bid a Fortune 50 company by 90% and secure a contract with a government agency. That’s how our Informl Learning Unworkshop [workshops] can be filled to capacity without spending a dollar on marketing expertise.

By subverting traditional business hierarchies, a lone consultant in Atlantic Canada can do business around the world. But does that make me the new expert? I have never purported to be an an expert. I have some skills and some knowledge, but my greatest asset is my network. Perhaps individual expertise is gradually being replaced by collaborative expertise. I’m not sure; but then I’m no expert.

10 Responses to “Who are the experts?”

  1. Charles Nelson

    Apparently, as I read your response to my critique of your earlier posting, there is some misunderstanding of my points. I clarified those points and expanded on two other interesting comments you made in my post, “Experts, Learning, and Networks.”

  2. Harold

    Charles; in reading your post I see that we on similar paths, with only some nuanced differences. I’m enjoying the discussion. Thank you for your comments.

  3. Paul Higgins

    I think we also need to ask experts in what? In our work we often quote research which shows that experts perform poorly in forecasting change, precisely because they are experts in a narrow and closed way – long history of deep training in a specific subject. Maybe the new expert is one that can take all the training and be flexible in their mental models to facilitate the collaboration that is both desired and needed in the sorts of examples talked about here – medical cases for example. In a complex medical situation I would not want a rigid medical expert or a crowdsourced solution. But a medical expert with great social and collaboration skills using others in the process would be fantastic.


    • Harold Jarche

      Yes, it’s networked-expertise that’s really needed, to combine the skills of the individual with the understanding of the community.

  4. Peter Connolly

    Expertise is an intensely practical term, in that it’s the ability to accurately apply appropriate knowledge. As such it is relative and therefore reliant on context for meaning. The problem is that the context is changing so fast that expertise has a very limited shelf-life. The accurate application of appropriate knowledge defines an Expert as opposed to a Practitioner. Previously, when it was knowledge and not expertise that was limited, Experts climbed further to the end of each branch of learning, and were acclaimed when they discovered a new bifurcation in their area of the tree. The tree is now growing so quickly that this kind of expertise is being buried by an avalanche of discovery. New kinds of what I would call “Meta-Experts” are needed — those who cross-branch learning and bring it back into circulation. Perhaps we need a different model. Instead of a Tree, why not a circulatory-system? Mainstream, Institutional learning could be likened to the arterial-side and the novel, opportunistic expertise that returns it for general circulation, the venous side. Each depends on the other for social-progress, although often neither are prepared to admit it.


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