Thursday, 11 August 2016

Experts, Zen masters (& David Brent)

What is an 'expert'? In my work facilitating knowledge transfer I have come across individuals who have widely varying degrees of expertise. Some are very aware of their unique know-how, others less so.

Low competency/ Low consciousness:

There are two categories here; firstly those who are blissfully unaware that they lack any expertise. A baby would be an example. Secondly, there are those who profess to be expert, but are actually incompetent and unaware of their incompetence. Rather than reach for an obvious example from US politics, I propose David Brent, from The Office. This phenomenon is called the Dunning Kruger effect named after the Cornell University professors who published the seminal research paper entitled 'Unskilled and Unaware of it'. This is why validation and looking for evidence is such an important part of the knowledge transfer process. Incidentally, did you know that 62% of all software engineers rate themselves in the top 5% of their profession?

The trouble with the world
is that the stupid are cocksure
and the intelligent are full of doubt.
— Bertrand Russell

Low Competency / High Consciousness

Novices are obvious examples of individuals who are aware of their inexperience. One interesting observation about those who claim to have low competency, is that sometimes it just takes a skilled interviewer to reveal a latent talent. One group that often benefit from this help are job-changers, unsure of their place. It can also be hugely motivating for them.

High Competency / High Consciousness

This group is the most obvious to classify as 'expert'. They can easily tell you what's right (or wrong) and why, and can provide lots of evidence. They are usually confident in their ability and will sometimes claim that expertise is in some way unique. This is worth testing in the knowledge transfer process - is it 'commodity' know-how? Is it easily codified (it may not be 'captured' in order to create an impression of uniqueness and inaccessibility). In my knowledge elicitation process, I use a mining metaphor. These experts are good at providing ore (superficial knowledge) but find it difficult to come up with gems (detailed knowledge that has context which makes it accessible to others). Their preferred communication style is to 'tell'.

High Competency / Low Consciousness

The Zen masters. These individuals have deep, experience gained through years of practice. Ironically, this most valuable expertise is the hardest to pass on. Next time you are out on a golf course with a player who is far better than you, try this... as they tee-up ask them to explain how they play their perfect shot. Either they can't explain it, or their next shot will go into the rough. Like pro basketball players who instinctively know where every other player is, they can't explain their mastery, they just do it. This is why knowledge transfer for these deep experts benefits from skilled facilitation. The best environment to elicit this sort of know how is a Socratic questioning approach or dialogue; quite different to the 'tell' approach of the 'expert'.