The expert is dead. Long live the inexpert


When Michael Gove announced that the UK “Was tired of experts”, I like many, I assume, booed and tutted. It felt like an attack on academia and those who had thoughtfully strived to perfect a skill or an area of knowledge.
And it felt personal. Expertise is as much about identification as it is about standards and qualifications. For those who are called expert, it can give definition, a badge of honour, a mark of specialisation that gives one a unique sense of identity. It is what sets one apart from others, that means one is the “best at”, the “authority on”, the “go to” person”.

Take that away from me or devalue it and you devalue me.

Expertise also brings power – I used the “authority on”, deliberately. Expertise immediately sets up distance and hierarchy – there are those who are the experts and those who are not. In organisations based around a skill or function – bio-chemistry, medicine, firefighting, accounting, etc – often the person who is best at that skill is the person who has risen to the top of the company. The argument being that the person best at the skill is the person best placed to lead everyone else.

Yet, this pursuit of the expertise position leads to a narrowing of focus.

In 1926 US physician Irene Sand penned an opinion piece that appeared in several U.S. newspapers, and he included definitions for an expert and a superficial person: 6
We are in need of social engineers who can combine harmoniously the findings of specialized knowledge. This is particularly true of the field of medicine.
“The expert who concentrates on a limited field is useful, but if he loses sight of the interdependence of things he becomes a man who knows more and more about less and less”

And as Chris Argyris explained in Teaching Smart People to Learn, the smartest and most successful are often the worst learners because they haven’t had the opportunities for introspection that failure affords. So when they do fail, instead of critically examining their own behaviour, they cast blame outward—on anyone or anything they can, as a defence against the tarnishing of their reputation and the belief in their expertise that has given them

Now don’t get me wrong – we need expertise. If my life and well being is someone else’s hands, I want them to be expert. I don’t want my accountant to say “I’ve done a guestimate of your tax – it’s there or thereabouts. Should be OK. See what they say”. I want drivers, pilots, doctors, firefighters, accountants to be held to the highest standards.

Yet at the highest level of the organisation I work for I want the directors to be expert at running a company and leading people, rather than being the most brilliant bio-chemist of their generation or the person who can land a 747 in force 10 storm in zero visibility – valuable though those expertises are.

To be continued…..