Noodle IX: Upgrading the Expert Role for the Knowledge Economy

Upgrading the Expert Role for the Knowledge Economy shows how knowledge workers can no longer seek refuge in their core expertise, and how to branch out.

Upgrading the Expert Role for the Knowledge Economy

“Experts” are regarded as the foremost authorities in their fields, the glib guru versions notwithstanding. An oft quoted maxim shows why: according to Malcolm Gladwell, for one, it takes 10,000 hours [of study, work] for most people to become expert in something.* On a related front, Naveen Jain posits that experts will be less likely to solve today’s toughest problems because their expertise has become a box around them. All those degrees or promotions within the organization have focused their minds but also closed out creativity. While commenting on his post, I realized that redefining the expert would be necessary in the Knowledge Economy, so here I’ll offer some strategies and tactics for how to practice being an “expert” in the 21st century.

Notably, we can take lessons from experts and apply them to specialists, which are arguably less far along on the same vector—and more common.

Drilling Down: Definition of an Expert

The Knowledge Economy will reward specialists far more than generalists in most cases, so understanding how to upgrade specialists and experts will be critical to careers and business outcomes. Of course, firms’ market positions can be “expert” as well. Full disclosure: my firm is known for its expertise in enterprise social business, the focus of our client work since 2006, so this subject is close to my heart.

As a management consultant specializing in disruptive technologies and behaviors for over 25 years, I’ve repeatedly observed that gold usually lies underneath assumptions, so let’s dispense with hidden assumptions of what an expert is. Then we’ll be in a better position to do the upgrade. Curiously, three dictionaries gave three quite different definitions:

  • A person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area (Oxford).
  • Having, involving, or displaying special skill or knowledge derived from training or experience (Webster’s).
  • A person with extensive knowledge or ability in a given subject (Wiktionary).

These definitions are a start, but we need to do better. First, notice that they are all characterized by relative qualifiers, “comprehensive,” “special,” “authoritative,” and “extensive.” That means that “expert” changes with the context. Here is a more comprehensive definition:

  • “Expert” is relative; s/he knows more about a defined subject than the group that asks his/her advice.
  • An expert combines a specialized body of knowledge from an unusual combination of inputs; for example, expertise might be created by:
    • Bridging unusual networks of influence (a lobbyist for suppliers for aircraft carrier materiel)
    • Combining bodies of knowledge that few people understand; i.e. food preparation in outer space; a U.S. healthcare insurance economist; a Persian cat fancier groomer
    • Unusual practice: A chef that makes delicate French pastries on barbecue grills
    • Cultural combination: an attorney who does telecoms joint ventures between U.S. and Rwandan companies
  • Expertise can also be focused on practice or economic/firm conditions; one example is executive compensation in automotive supplier turnarounds.

Expertise includes two key components: a hard-to-replicate combination of knowledge—and the expert’s process for delivering expertise, so the client can apply it to achieve a business result

Current State: The 20th Century Expert

The market for expertise is changing fast, but most organizations, governments and people still harbor Industrial Economy assumptions about expertise. The Industrial Economy (1750-1970) was arguably the most successful time in human history when we qualify that by material wealth for the largest portion of people. It collapsed in the 1970s but was on life support before going code blue around 2000. During the Industrial Economy, people and organizations created material wealth by transforming raw materials into physical products, extremely efficiently, along with the concomitant management processes like supply chain management. Efficiency was its main lever. Product life cycles were long.

Innovation was practiced intermittently and poorly because it was disruptive to processes. Today, however, supply of products has outstripped demand in most categories. More products commoditize every year, and “emerging” markets, while they increase demand in their early years of maturation, quickly add to supply as well, and usually at far lower cost than mature markets (G7). This means that innovation must be continuous.

The Internet and its recent social business layer have revolutionized communications; wired people discover, discuss and rapaciously consume novelty, which shortens product life cycles, and this trend is accelerating; moreover, competitors copy product features very quickly—the market has become extremely efficient and dynamic

The lifespan of knowledge was relatively long during the 20th century. Experts whose authority is built on knowledge are threatened because knowledge is free now, where it used to be one of our most precious resources. Analogously, prior to the Industrial Economy, physical power was precious (it usually meant a lot of people pulling on a rope or a lever). But physical power became relatively free due to the mechanization of power. The Long Tail puts this into context nicely.

Market conditions and networks changed more slowly during the 20th century, which enabled experts to recommend similar expertise to various clients. Interestingly, some of the most useful tools in the expert’s bag are interpersonal, and these have changed the least:

  • Developing a trusted relationship with the client team, from initial contact through keeping in contact after the expertise has been delivered.
  • Helping the client to manage conflicts or misunderstandings within the group; clients usually seek expertise when they are not confident of making decisions on their own, or there is disagreement among stakeholders.
  • Diagnosing the client’s real challenges (they often do not know).
  • These interpersonal skills are tacit, so people are mostly unaware of them; however, they significantly determine how effective the expert is.

Future State: The 21st Century Expert (and Specialist)

The Knowledge Economy specialist is less focused on knowledge and more grounded in process. Expertise built on knowledge is a precarious proposition today because networks can serve to assemble very potent combinations of separate experts quickly and cheaply. Therefore, the expert’s “unique” combination of knowledge (Rwanda, telecoms, joint ventures) can increasingly come from two or three people working together. Moreover, knowledge and relevant interactions among people discussing similar issues are increasingly online, which enables clients to self-educate to a certain extent.

The 21st century expert is a collaboration specialist who assesses the need and situation, organizes teams and facilitates contributions from diverse resources.

Crucially, experts must analyze and follow market drivers that are affecting market activity and evolution relevant to their expertise. They need agile minds and to be willing to throw things away. It is a cliché that knowledge is a river, but experts who want to remain relevant have to discard things. It is not trivial to throw knowledge away. Of course, I do not mean this literally; in practice, it means archiving things that are less relevant. The market is so dynamic that relevance changes quickly.

Delivering an exotic cocktail of knowledge is a threadbare value proposition for people who want to be experts and specialists in the 21st century


I hope this noodle has convinced you that you need to develop your market analysis skills to keep your expertise or specialty relevant. Here are some more specific recommendations:

  • Consistently analyze market conditions globally that could affect your knowledge base and how clients use your expertise to achieve results. Digital social and collaboration tools have transformed communication and increased transparency; that means expertise can emerge from across the world. For example, knowledge process outsourcing (KPO) is developing a massive knowledge base of U.S. and U.S. state law—in India. The same is true of software development, engineering, education, scientific research… the list is endless. I predict that China will become a global engineering innovation leader by 2025, and India will transform what we regard today as “higher education.”
  • Do not get lulled into complacency by clients! Although they are appreciative of your expertise today, they are not following the market drivers that are changing the context around your expertise or their need of it; they are focused on running their organizations. They will hire the most relevant expertise when they need it.
  • Think in terms of barriers to entry. How can you evolve your expertise in ways that make it more difficult for others to develop or assemble from several people? Think in terms of knowledge and delivery.
  • Amp up your people skills; it is easier for most experts to retreat into their beloved knowledge areas, but this is now the weakest aspect of the expert—and getting weaker. Chefs love food, attorneys research and deals, groomers dogs. Assessing the client’s business issues and dynamics of the client group of stakeholders is far less sexy—but critical for helping the client to achieve the result they want—and erstwhile competitors will overlook the “soft skills.”
  • Think in terms of variables and constants. Human nature is a relative constant. People want to manage risk by trusting, so help them to trust you. The engagement sponsor may be having difficulty managing a group of truculent stakeholders who will affect how effectively the firm can use your expertise. Knowledge is the variable, so you must manage it to compete better.
  • One practice that is very effective in evolving expertise: educate your clients, so they can become expert in your area. That will naturally force you to evolve—ahead of the market.
  • Also see: The Power of Specialization in Social Networks.

How do you build and safeguard your knowledge and expertise/specialty?


* Obviously, we would have to qualify that further for “quality”; assuming our expert wannabe is hardworking, s/he would have 12x6x52=3,744 disposable hours per year to devote to building expertise, assuming 12 hours days, 6 days a week.

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