Transforming Expertise

28 Jan

Mickinsey and Company recently published an interesting article entitled “Transforming Expert Organizations”. The article identified an interesting “expertise paradox”. Expertise builds up within an organization, is highly effective and transformational, but then becomes increasingly more difficult for outsiders to understand and access. The authors of the article (Bollard et al, 2016) refer to this as an “expertise silo” and describe the concept below

Over time, an expert’s isolation can become self-perpetuating. Because expertise is difficult for outsiders to understand, only experts can credibly lead experts. But their value to the organization as experts leaves them less capacity and fewer incentives to focus on general management. Instead, they focus on resolving the most difficult and complex issues that arise. Meanwhile, capability building usually follows an ad hoc apprenticeship mode—which is time consuming yet leaves little room for cross-training—and automation tends to be minimal. The result is not just a silo but a hardened one

The article concludes that accessing and applying expertise to the front end of the business (meeting external customer needs) can be incredibly difficult and time consuming. However, if experts can fit into a system of working, which provides a broader perspective on how their knowledge contributes across departments to meet customer need, the business results can be significant. This broader perspective involves experts sharing and applying their knowledge across teams, and the article invites leaders to imagine

“What if everyone working on a project—you, your team, your clients—could see the status of every task, continually updated, so that questions could be resolved as soon as they arose? How would that change what you do as a leader?”(Bollard et al, 2016)

A broader perspective can also be achieved through sharing the reasoning behind decisions and actions across an organisation. Expertise is a form of subtle and fine grained reasoning which has built up over time and is highly effective. However, how experts think and reason is not something you will find in any formal training manual, its tacit knowledge.

Tacit knowledge is knowledge which has built up over time and we take for granted. I remember when I and colleagues examined expertise in dementia care. The methods, heuristics and reasoning experts applied to deliver excellent care had little resemblance to the formal training and inductions given to novices. The experts didn’t share this knowledge because they took it for granted, it simply “wasn’t worth mentioning”. However, it was the source of their expertise.

These conditions can present themselves in organisations as “expertise silos”. It’s obvious what experts do is effective, but it becomes increasingly mysterious to outsiders. Since tacit knowledge is so difficult to capture, experts become more centred and overloaded on tough cases, whilst less experienced staff stand less chance of obtaining this experience and knowledge. We have frequently tackled this problem with cognitive research methods to capture tacit knowledge. Once the source of expertise has been identified then the next task is to transform it into an easy to apply resource which novice staff can use almost immediately.

We recently carried out this work for a fast paced, high risk clinical team. New staff had to be integrated into a highly functional, highly expert team. Budgets and time constraints were extremely tight so we needed to capture the expertise fast and create a method of sharing this knowledge with novice staff equally fast. We were able to capture the key reasoning skills of experts and transform them into an easy to apply action script within two days.

Bollard et al (2016) in the earlier quote invite leaders to imagine constant feedback on task progress. This is an important ingredient of expertise. Leaders need to know the consequences of their decisions, plans and strategies. Decision makers need to know how tasks are being actioned on the ground. This means knowing what’s going to plan, what surprises have occurred, what reasoning has been applied to get events back on course, and what people would do differently. In other words, how is expertise being applied to tough and non-routine events? This type of feedback makes reasoning transparent. It demonstrates how expertise is applied to tasks and how expertise produces results. And most importantly it shares expertise (see Weick and Suttcliffe, 2007).

Without feedback, the “ground truth” of how tasks are carried out remains within a black box. Only the outcome is known. We designed feedback loops for a complex health and wellbeing project. The project delivery was being carried out by an array of different organisations. It was important to know how each organisation was making sense of tasks, how they were innovating, how they were getting stuck and what lessons were being picked up. As always, the feedback loops couldn’t increase workload or they wouldn’t be used. We were able to create a simple 3 question report back system and capture the necessary information.

Expertise can become dug into a silo because it is tacit in nature. It’s hard to capture because it’s difficult to understand. Adopting simple methods to capture and share this knowledge can improve organisational effectiveness significantly.


The full Bollard et al article can be read here

Weick, K. E., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2007). Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in and Age of Uncertainty, Second Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

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