Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Are Experts Obsolete? Not In My Informed Opinion

I recently tripped over an intriguing article on Extinction of the Expert by Denise Gershbein, a creative director at frog design. To be honest, I couldn’t quite follow her argument, but the gist seemed to be that true experts in the future will be people who can integrate information from multiple domains by leading teams of people who are themselves experts in different fields. I sense an infinite recursion here – are the “experts in different fields” themselves people who integrate other experts, or are they domain experts in the conventional sense? But as someone who makes a living based on my own claims of expertise, I’m less interested in Gershbein’s answer than her original question of whether experts will soon be obsolete.

My short answer, you won’t be surprised to learn, is no. Maybe I'm biased by self-interest, but it seems perfectly clear that there are many situations when the collective wisdom of the Internet won’t suffice. If I need a plumber or surgeon or marketing consultant, I need someone who can solve my individual problem, not provide generic advice or spend days researching the issue. In most cases, experts won't provide that kind of personal attention for free. (The exceptions, where experts will provide individual help as a hobby or public service or for glory or because someone else is funding them, are just that – exceptions.) Perhaps my personal expert will be able to call on a crowd of other experts for assistance. But each expert must start with a high level of personal knowledge to be effective. QED.

Even though I expect experts to survive in pretty much their current form, there are certainly changes in their surroundings. In particular, two major trends are well under way:

- information is much more accessible. I know you knew that, but have you considered the kind of information we’re talking about? What’s more accessible is basic information, such as “who are the major vendors in a given market”? Back in the day, just knowing the answer to that qualified you as an expert. Now, anyone can find it in an hour. But the critical point is that once you get beyond basic information, the important details – strengths and weaknesses, specific features, industry reputation – are not easily accessible, and you need to be an expert to even know which questions to ask. So even though experts need deeper knowledge than previously to add real value, people with specific questions still need experts to get the answers.

- experts are much more accessible. This is true in several senses: it’s easier to find an expert; there are more experts to find; and it’s easier to be recognized as an expert. The ease of publishing in blogs and other online venues has removed the bottleneck previously created by traditional media, allowing many more people to display their expertise and making them easier to find. That the number of true experts has expanded may seem debatable, but I believe the greater availability of information means that more people can learn what an expert needs to know. In practical terms, greater accessibility also means that more people can sell their expertise: thus, even if the total number of people with deep knowledge hasn’t expanded, the proportion of those people who are offering their services as experts has certainly grown. This means the net supply has definitely increased.

Of course, the loss of the filters provided by traditional media also means it’s easier for people to appear to be experts when they are not. This matters more in some fields than others: if a credentialing system is still in place, such as government-sanctioned licensing or industry certifications, then experts still must pass the traditional hurdles. But in fields like journalism and marketing, pretty much anybody can peddle their wares to whomever will buy them. This means that the success as a professional expert now requires a new set of self-promotion skills, although it would be naive to believe that success didn’t always require some type of self-promotion. I’d guess it’s easier today for a less-than-fully-competent expert to make a living, if only because it’s easier to attract potential clients. In fields where performance is highly subjective, it’s probably even possible for someone who gives objectively bad advice to build a base of happy reference clients. Although I’m not quite ready to concede that there is no ultimate objective measure of expertise, I do think it’s harder than ever for clients to assess the true competence of experts they are considering for hire.

Back to the original question: if there’s more competition from both competent and less-competent experts, are “true” experts are in danger of extinction? I still don’t think so, but do think they’ll find it harder to make a living, which may ultimately reduce the level of expertise available in the market. Advanced expertise involves considerable investment in training and research, which only well-established, profitable experts can afford. Those experts will continue to prosper by charging premium rates to discriminating clients, but there will be fewer of them and they'll be less likely to share what they know for free over the Internet.

Less knowledgeable clients will settle for less knowledgeable experts, who will be both cheaper and more accessible. Maybe that’s still a net gain compared to a world with a few experts whose rates are so high that many companies can’t afford them. A health care analogy would be a system where more patients get care, but they see a nurse-practitioner instead of a doctor. Since some care is better than none, the average level of care rises, despite the occasional catastrophic error because a more skilled expert was not consulted. (In actual health care, this doesn't happen because nurse-practitioners are trained to call a physician when appropriate. But in other fields, such safeguards don’t exist.)

The economics of being an expert are my problem, since that’s how I make my living. What you, Dear Reader, presumably must worry about is how to get the best value from the experts you employ while avoiding catastrophic results. At this point all I can advise is greater care than ever in selecting your experts – look beyond the persuasive blog posts for concrete experience and proven results. Perhaps community rating mechanisms will eventually make the selection easier, but at the moment you need to question whether the crowd truly knows best.

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