What Is An Expert?

What does being an “expert” mean in complex knowledge work? That’s one of the questions I’ve been pondering for a while. Last week we discussed it also with my wise colleagues at One Agency, so I thought I’d post some reflections here :)

Without dissing any experts out there, I’ve become slightly allergic to the word itself. Traditionally, an expert is a “person with a high level of knowledge or skill relating to a particular subject or activity” (Cambridge Dictionary).

I have high respect for these people. However, here are some implications of that definition that I can think of, especially in our complex VUCA world:

  • it focuses on a specialized person (internal focus) and not on a team (external/outcome focus)
  • it optimises for Resource Efficiency (single person) instead of Flow Efficiency (unit), possibly creating dependencies and bottlenecks in the process
  • it doesn’t mention that expertise is time/situation-bound, with an ever-changing “best-before” date
  • it doesn’t mention the context in which the expertise is applied (no one-size-fits-all)
  • it doesn’t mention if this expertise exists in theory only, or also in practice. Being experienced can often mean admitting not knowing the answer — and finding out through experiments. Navigating in the mist is an important skill :)

Being an expert is then perhaps more of a mindset than a fixed trait. As such, it can’t be evaluated by years of experience, but rather by focusing on the scientific method and a process that produces positive results. In other words, in my mind, a good expert has grit.

Some further thoughts on being an expert

  • An expert should be able to communicate and interact with non-experts. It’s quite common to refrain from commenting if we feel we’re not “experts” in the topic. A respectful dialogue between humans should always be possible, to increase understanding, regardless of experience level.
  • An expert shouldn’t get irritated if his/her knowledge is challenged or criticised. An expert understands that it’s not about his/her ego, but about advancing the knowledge to improve both the system and the outcome.
  • An expert should be able to rethink and relearn, adapt, be aware, and listen. Changing your mind based on critical thinking and new information is not weakness; it leads to wisdom. In fact, the person who can’t change his or her mind is dangerous.
  • It’s the others that see you as an expert and choose to trust you as such. It’s not a self-proclaimed title. If you think that you, the “expert”, are always right, you’ve already lost your expertise in the VUCA world, and damaged trust in your team.

Finally, it’s the team that has the combined expertise to deliver an effective outcome. Everyone in the team has a piece of the truth.

Originally published at https://www.akikoo.org on March 22, 2022.

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Aki Kärkkäinen

Aki Kärkkäinen

Scrum Master, Agile practitioner and former UI Developer with 20+ years of international working experience in six European countries. Occasional Music Freak.