What is Expertise?

8 Aug

Kahneman and Klein (2009) published an outstanding article in the American Psychologist outlining the environments in which expertise could be considered to exist. A lot of people are ready to call themselves experts, but the term needs to be reserved for the genuine article. In this post I’ll provide a short overview of expertise, some of my research experiences in the area, and how expertise can be developed.

For expertise to exist, two key conditions need to be met. Firstly the environment the person operates in needs to be valid; cues need to be available and these need to be recognisable, leading to fairly consistent outcomes. In midwifery, for example, one of the cues a midwife will look for is the breathing of the woman who is giving birth; this cue is available in the environment each time during a normal birthing process. The quality and nature of the breathing will produce outcomes, outcomes which the midwife can anticipate and generate action scripts for. This environment has valid qualities where expertise can develop.

Secondly, an environment must provide learning opportunities and quick, clear feedback. The midwife is able to employ an action script (based on the breathing during birth for example) and monitor and adapt this action script according to the needs of the woman. This environment again meets the conditions of expertise.

Hopefully, I’ve quickly established the broad environmental conditions for expertise to exist and also be developed in others. In the business environment, expertise is more difficult to develop. Many cues are available, but the outcomes they produce are inconsistent and difficult to predict. Analysis of the operating environment is important in business because if a cue is spotted and acted upon, and this produces a positive result, then illusory skill may creep into decision making as a cause and effect assumption is made. Acknowledging the difference between luck and skill is vitally important in decision making, strategy and leadership; nobody wants luck to be the driver of decisions. An analogy is throwing a coin into a wishing well, making your wish, and the wish being fulfilled. This is luck and coincidence and not a good strategy for achieving future goals.

However, decision making can improve in lower validity environments, even if true expertise cannot. A decision should not be a gamble (see Klein, 2011) it should be the starting point of dynamic action. Experience, particularly of the trial and error type, provides access to richer mental models of the environment and the ability to make sense of the same environment. Trial and error provides a broader range of options if things go wrong or plans reach their limits; there is higher capability to adapt to a dynamic, inconsistent environment.

True experts understand the limits of formal processes, and address these limits with adaptive rules of thumb they have learned through many trials. My recent research with health professionals proved this again; the experts had rich mental models and a range of options available to deliver outstanding patient care that went beyond their formal training.

To incorporate this into business – focus on what could go wrong with plans and find alternative interpretations of markets and data to your own analysis. Never use statistics to prove a point, use them to prove you are wrong. Something you could use today- if someone presents you with some summary statistical data, ask them where the figures came from. If that question can’t be answered then you can’t make sense of the environment to which that data allegedly belongs.

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