In the course of an academic seminar I chanced upon a few chapters from the book The Cambridge Handbook on Experts and Expertise. The object of our study, as you should be able to conclude was expertise. Now at first glance the pursuit of such a topic may seem odd or even trivial. After all we all posses a basic understanding of expertise, indeed some of us may have the privilege of being considered experts in certain domains. But there is much to be said in behavioral science about the meta theory of what it takes to be an expert and whether experts should be more valued than average knowledge holders. I shall try to structure my thoughts according to the texts read but again meandering is something that I enjoy enough to risk indulging in.

Studies of Expertise from Psychological Perspectives

We recognize, expertise as a relative concept. We establish contextual boundaries when we think of a domain before we set about the business of evaluating if one is a master of the field and to what extent? Whether it be the study of microprocessors or the binge drinking of beer, we define a scope. Perhaps a dorm, a class, university level or all the people we can recall at the time of facing the question . Then we also determine what it means to be an expert, perhaps a mental bar is set. Where discrete scores of performance are available we use them, or else we provide our own grading of individuals. One could be interested in this very personal determination of the abilities of fellow beings or one could be interested in the collective definition of what kind of person is worthy of being called an expert in a field. It is often the case that the latter is used to work out the former. We would like to believe that expertise can be taught, that it need not be experiential. After all simply putting in years doesn’t guarantee mastery does it? The 10,000 hour rule maybe good for selling pop psychology books but does it really hold water? Well the thing is that one can’t actually teach expertise and exposure to the said domain helps immensely. But yes, just putting in more years is a brute force method of increasing performance which very few psychologists would subscribe to.

Consider all the conferences and talks you have been to or watched videos of. Where established experts talk of how they made it big, big enough to warrant the attention of novices like yourself. They maybe selling the Viagra of success to you or just outlining a part of their working strategies. One could absorb this information but to internalize it a mere audience to expertise is not enough. To be able to successfully navigate to defined successes there is a lot of things one must encounter on the way. This is not anything to do with riper fruit being sweeter  or having to suffer to truly succeed. It is more to do with certain activities and tasks having an inherently high level of complexity. Machine learning and AI is mentioned in this chapter and that is interesting, for in those techniques we are trying to reduce the time it takes to gain expertise. The premise being that machines of high computational power are capable of taking several paths and receiving feedback to better make decisions in lesser time. If something can be modeled, if there is a discernible pattern, a sequence to things. If we can identify all the necessary variables needed to be looked at in making a decision in a domain. Then perhaps humanity can code expertise. The idea that the collective wisdom of multiple beings can be held by this single program is alluring. Get a piece of code to play chess with all the world masters and it may build on each of their strengths. What is challenging is then encountering situations the likes of which have never been faced before. In such scenarios, predictions by real people although prone to error are somehow more easy to swallow.

Today we have a trust in people, in that organic feeling which human assurance and advice seems to provide. Even suggestions by man written programs are more palatable when presented by humanized entities, programs with the names of actual beings. Our personal evaluation of knowledgeable people is biased by likability, a trustworthy face or other factors unrelated to outcomes. If the idea of expertise is not judged by performance alone then perhaps it is by the size of the lump of salt you take with the advice the expert gives.


The Influence of Experience and Deliberate Practice on the Development of Superior Expert Performance

Performance and experience are becoming more unrelated than ever before. Our major houses of wealth and business have at their helm increasingly younger persons. In all domains, wizened, old bearded men are being replaced by younger populations of highly varied individuals as experts. We all can recall a favorite TV character who bemoans the advent of youth in his or her domain as an expert or a highly paid competitor. Company pay structures have been long changing to reflect a focus on performance rather than how long have you been around. Younger bosses, pubescent looking teachers and CEOs still waiting for facial hair to sprout are becoming common. So the understanding of experience is important. A log like curve is observed in the increase of performance with experience. In fact in most domains one can see a peak in people’s expertise followed by a decline. If you are an IT guru with a formidable knowledge of websites and ecommerce, you probably hit it big in the mid 90’s to 2000’s. Then came in the mobile apps and smart devices. You coped, much better than the average Joe but were no longer king of your domain for your domain changed. Also entering were these younger people who knew what you did by a way of life and generally heightened exposure. They started from a reference point which took you decades to reach.

It is thus not difficult to see how expertise is dynamic. Repetition and practice have their values in the honing of seemingly complex skills into automotive tasks. A true mark of an expert becomes the ease with which he or she does the most complex of domain specific activities. A young professor might be excellent at conducting ethnographic studies in online contexts. He or she might design, implement and finish one in less than a month where it might take a seasoned professor a couple of months due to his or her lack of practice. The ease of execution with quality of performance often forms the metric for experts.

Social and Sociological Factors in the Development of Expertise

The idea of relative expertise also entertains the obvious notion of contextual expertise. What do doctors know of heavy machinery and so on.  Experts must serve a function and their knowledge must translate into the serving of that purpose. The possession of knowledge without its application doesn’t conventionally count in the favor of expertise. Thus we come to the understanding of how the society values this ambiguously defined term. The idea of professionalism steps in, with the conclusion that if someone does something for a living their being good at it is a given. At least they must be better than hobbyists. Generally an accurate statement, this speaks to how we see the leaders of specific domains. Their remunerations to us express to a great degree how the other domain experts value them. That is why you’d rather talk about your future to a paid consultant rather than an equally knowledgeable friend or relative. While social influence does have a role to play in decision making so does the perception of expertise. This is true even in modern online mediums where the whole hearted support of technically complex media pieces and blog posts is not driven solely by the quality of the content but by the position and status of the author.

Another important dimension to specific expertise is the age old idea of the division of labor. If you read the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, this notion becomes very apparent in the first few chapters. Efficiency of cost and time is derived from the specialization of tasks by individuals. The better these people get at the specific tasks, the better the entire process becomes. With an ever increasing population we are now capable of continuously increasing the granularity of specialization. Consultants who can advise you on education in a specific nation, orthodontists, big data scientists and Feng Shui life coaches are all examples of specialization driven by a combination of need, abundance and opportunity.

The study of expertise is important, for all of us are in some constant pursuit of it in our relevant domains. We must understand if and how much of a difference being perceived an expert makes in our fields. Is performance truly changing, as rapidly as the associated rewards? Disproportionate incomes often get associated with heightened levels of specialization. If the society comes to realize that even the very average members of your community can accomplish what you do, then the repercussions are obvious. Salaries start flat lining and competition spirals. This is getting more and more observable in the technology domain where experience, age old wisdom and even community driven images of expertise get trumped by pure undiluted results.



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