Become an Expert on Expertise

There's a lot of skepticism about "experts" these days. But it pays to be skeptical when listening to outsiders and nontraditional information sources too.

Experts, schmexperts.

If the rise of social media has elevated one notion, it’s that masses of previously unheard people can be sources of great wisdom. (There are plenty of books on that subject, but Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody is a particularly interesting one.) If the rise of social media has elevated two notions, it’s that leaders, CEOs, and so-called experts are full of beans. (Indeed, that “so-called” modifier is practically obligatory today.) Now that the masses have a voice, they can quickly let the world know that a company or leader has screwed up, whether it involves breaking a guitar or holding opinions that upset employees and customers.

“Experts tend on the whole to form very rigid camps.”

So groups are wise, while experts are—not the opposite, exactly, but not so wise as we once thought. They’re certainly no longer a singular go-to source for wisdom. That’s a point that Noreena Hertz made during the Closing General Session of last week’s ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo. “Associations need to cast a wider net beyond traditional ‘experts’ and find nontraditional sources of information, especially among their own members,” she told the crowd according to AssociationsNow.com. “‘You can aggregate this information, capture it, make sense of it,’ Hertz said.”

What’s so bad about experts? “Experts tend on the whole to form very rigid camps,” Hertz said in a 2010 Ted talk. “Within these camps, a dominant perspective emerges that often silences opposition, that experts move with the prevailing winds, their own gurus.” Moreover, she cites research suggesting that when we’re presented with expert opinions, our brains shut off a bit and we become more reflexively trusting of what we hear.

This all makes sense to me. But in the same way that Hertz asks people to be wide awake when you’re told something by experts—sorry, so-called experts—it’s worth being skeptical about those nontraditional sources of information too. A few thoughts on how to integrate that into your decision making:

1. Nonexperts can form very rigid camps too. If you’ve spent any amount of time in the portions of Twitter that discuss national politics—and I recommend you spend very little time there—you’ll see large masses of people tend to be very dug in to their opinions. For the better part of a decade, scholar and former Obama administration staffer Cass Sunstein has cautioned that online communities tend to experience ideas and opinions that mostly mirror their own. Hertz challenges decision makers to test “experts” about the mental models that drive their conclusions. That ought to apply to the nonexperts too.

2. A large sample size isn’t necessarily a diverse one. In her Ted talk, Hertz shares a story about how Best Buy recognized that an upcoming venture into China was in trouble only after polling the whole of its workers about the likelihood of its success. It’s not so much that the floor workers were just as wise about international expansion as its team in China; it’s just that the effort surfaced some concerns that the finance department had and wouldn’t have voiced otherwise. Saying that you’ll appeal to nontraditional sources is fine—so long as your mix of those sources includes people who can bring you important information. Which brings us to…

3. Ultimately, you’re the expert on what kinds of expertise matters. Last year I suggested a short list of roles that truly define the CEO’s job. One of them was that “it’s the job of the CEO to grasp and effectively manage the overall mechanics of the organization.” Part of that responsibility, in terms of Hertz’s comments, is understanding not just what various stakeholders think, but what critics and outsiders think too. That doesn’t necessarily mean that what those people say is valid—there’s no more reason to over-value an outsider than their is to under-value an expert. But knowing the range of opinions out there, and being willing to ask questions of the people who hold them, can only lead to better decisions.

Do you seek a balance between expertise and nontraditional sources of information? If so, how do you arrive at that mix? Share your thoughts in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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