The Grey Chronicles


Experts and Specialists in the Workplace

Sometime ago, «The Grey Chronicles» posted something about experts in the workplace, such as
More And More About Less And Less. Through the course of reading other management books on leadership and general management, several of these addressed experts and their expertise. Hereunder are the quotable quotes from some of these books and journal articles:

“The expert: an ordinary man, away from home, giving advice.” — Unknown wise person

Annotation: This is almost similar to the previously quoted popular definitions, an expert is anyone who is holding a briefcase and is more that 50 miles from home.

“Make three correct guesses consecutively and you will establish a reputation as an expert.” — Laurence J. Peter

Annotation: Should we start reciting “I guess, I am an expert!” correctly three times and soon we will believe it ourselves? As they said in history, repeat the lie incessantly and soon everybody will believe it, including yourself?

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.” — from Zen, Beginner’s Mind

Annotation: In the beginner’s mind, everything is new. Observe a child’s amazement of learning something for the first time. It’s like they have discovered things never been explored before. Probably in the expert’s mind there are no more room for new knowledge because it has reached full capacity?

“No man can be a pure specialist without being in the strict sense an idiot.” — George Bernard Shaw

“An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less [until he knows a lot about nothing].” — Nicholas Murray Butler

Annotation: Learning what you do and do not know is the tenet of expertise. Literatures state that to become an expert what is needed is practice to develop perceptual and motor skills. Hayes studied geniuses in fields like music and chess. He found that no one reached genius levels of performance without at least 10 years of practice. According to Feltovich, Prietula & Ericsson (2006), “Effortless mastery of expertise, magical bullets involving training machines, and dramatic shortcuts are just myths. They cannot explain the acquisition of the mechanisms and adaptations that mediate skilled and expert performance. Even more importantly, the insufficiency of the traditional school system is becoming apparent. It is not reasonable to teach students knowledge and rules about a domain, such as programming, medicine, and economics, and then expect them to be able to convert this material into effective professional skills by additional experience in the pertinent domain.” More directly, rote learning is not expertise!

“Always listen to experts. They’ll tell you what can’t be done and why. Then do it.” — Robert Heinlein

Annotation: Evaluative skill, or judgment, is the heart of expertise. Whatever an expert is called upon to do entails recognition and evaluation of the crucial stimuli in the situation (Weiss & Shanteau, 2004: 5). Expertise is, thus, specific to a domain. Michael Jordan could not hit the curve ball when he tried to be a professional baseball player (Weiss & Shanteau, 2004: 7). Similarly, you would neither go to Einstein for a toothache nor let your plumber do your taxes.

“The function of the expert is not to be more right than other people, but to be wrong for more sophisticated reasons.” — Dr. David Butler

Annotation: To paraphrase, Timothy A. Salthouse (1991), experts are “circumventors” of human processing limitations. A expert is person with special knowledge or ability who performs skillfully. Experts are able to recognize the problem in a new situation; diagnose new problems; know the answer to many problems; have lots of prior experience [familiarity with problems in a domain]; need not start from scratch solving problems; know how to diagnose and solve new problems; have a set of skills for solving unseen problems; and for ill-formed problems, find operators that can apply to new problems. Weiss & Shanteau (2004: 27) describe this ‘sophisticated reasons’ as “inspired inconsistency” To coin a more distinct phrase: enlightened idiocy.

“An expert is a man who has stopped thinking. Why should he think? He is an expert.” — Frank Lloyd Wright

Annotation: If he can’t think of a solution, he seeks the counsel of other experts. There must be a consensus between experts. That is, the experts in a given field should agree with each other (Ashton, 1985). If they do not, then it suggests that at least some of the would-be experts are not really what they claim to be (Weiss & Shanteau, 2004: 7). Interestingly, Allen (1977) reported a tendency for higher-performing engineers to consult much more with experts outside their own discipline than did lower-performing engineers, although both groups spent about the same proportion of time overall communicating (Mockus & Herbsleb, 2002: 503)

Many literatures find it difficult to measure or directly observe expertise. “The most direct measure, perhaps, is a test such as ones proposed for professional licensing,” wrote Mockus & Herbsleb (2002: 504—505). Thus, they propose:

“Experience atoms (EAs), are elementary units of experience. Experience, we assume, is the direct result of a person’s activity with respect to a work product, enhancing it or fixing a problem. The smallest meaningful unit of such changes is an EA. We define the experience of an object as a collection of all such elementary units pertaining to that object. According to our definition, experience may pertain to a person, organization, or a work product such as a piece of code. The simplest unit of experience that could be observed in projects using change management systems is the atomic change (delta) made to the source code or to documentation. The person (and the person’s organization) implementing the change gained a certain amount of experience by doing work required to change the particular part of a file. The changed work product provided a particular type of experience to a specific person.”

Weiss & Shanteau (2004: 5—6) present a classification of expert tasks, a partial theory of expertise, in which other skills are superimposed on judgment. Their classification is not yet supported by much evidence, but represents a research agenda. Tasks that call for expertise can be divided into four categories:

“Expert judges award medals, audit companies, assign grades, or make diagnoses. Experts in prediction are the best at forecasting the weather, hiring an employee, recommending medical treatment, or advising whether parole is a worthwhile risk. Expert instructors train novices, develop computationally aided “expert systems”, set criteria for testing, or mentor aspiring experts. Performance experts do something better than most people can do it; their task may be playing an instrument, fixing a car, shooting a basketball, or painting a landscape. ”

So, which expert are you?


Due to the sensitivity of the topic, Written Explanation, the posts dated 16 September and 17 September are for private consumption of select readers only as per advice by a lawyer for the time being that this blog is threatened with a libel suit.

Allen, T. J. (1977). Managing the Flow of Technology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977 as cited by Mockus & Herbsleb (2002: 503). back to text.

Ashton, Alison Hubbard (1985). Does consensus imply accuracy in accounting studies of decision making?. Accounting Review, 60:2. 1985. pp. 173—185. As cited by Weiss & Shanteau, 2004: 7). back to text.

Feltovich, Paul J.; Prietula, Michael J.; & Ericsson, K. Anders (2006). Studies of Expertise from Psychological Perspectives, Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. K. A. Ericsson, N. Charness, P. J. Feltovich, & R. R. Hoffman [eds.]. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2006. Chapter 2.1, p. 27. back to text.

Mockus, Audris & Herbsleb, James D. (2009). Expertise Browser: A Quantitative Approach to Identifying Expertise. Orlando, Florida: ICSE’02, May 19-25, 2002. p. 503—512. back to text.

Salthouse, Timothy A. (1991). Expertise as the circumvention of human processing limitations. Toward a General Theory of Expertise: Prospects and Limits. Karl Anders Ericsson & Jacqui Smith [eds.] Cambridge University Press, 1991. pp. 286-9. back to text

Weiss, David J. & Shanteau, James (2009). Empirical Assessment of Expertise. Kansas: Kansas State University, 2004. pp. 5—7. back to text.

Zelinski, Ernie J. (2007). 1001 Best Things Ever Said about WORK (and the Workplace). Alberta, Canada: VIP Books, 2007. pp. 64—65. back to text.

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 LicenseDisclaimer: The posts herein do not necessarily represent any organization’s positions, strategies or opinions. Read the full version of self-imposed rules for this blog: A New Year; New Rules. Unless otherwise expressly stated, the posts are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.
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