Saturday, May 30, 2015

What Makes You An Expert?

The #lrnchat conducted on 21 May 2015 was a blazing round of thoughts, opinions, and views on 'Authority and Expertise'. 
As many of us learned, there were variations in how we defined experts (it was difficult to come up with a definition in the first place). But here are some interesting definitions in 140 characters or less:
Quinnovatora1) expertise is a level of understanding that goes beyond being able to do, to being able to improve on #lrnchat
ryantraceyA1) Knowing more about something than other people. Therefore, apparently I’m an IT expert. #lrnchat
JD_DillonA1) Subjective but recognized capability from which others can benefit #lrnchat 
hjarche@lrnchat expertise today is access to a diverse, giving, knowledgeable professional network of trusted relationships #lrnchat
OhThatRachelA1) I would have to go beyond just saying “knowing a lot” but actually being validated in that knowledge. #lrnchat
brunowinckA1) Expertise: having a deep enough knowledge to cover a domain sufficiently well that u can act or share with a relative assurance #lrnchat

A1: Expertise is being able to handle the unexpected, not just the expected. #lrnchat
JaneBozarthFor me now expertise is less having it all in my head and more being resourceful/knowing where to find/knowing who #lrnchat

On Quora, George Siemens (@gsiemensdefines an expert as:
An expert is someone who has sufficient experience and knowledge in a field to be able to recognize novel patterns from noise. Or, more abstractly, it's the ability to collapse possibilities of a topic/domain to their most salient in order to decide/act meaningfully. 

Scientists have debunked that 10,000 hours of practice does not make you an expert. So, if it is not practice, what is it that makes someone an expert?

Well, I am no expert on expertise. But based on our discussions during the chat, some of my reading on this topic and my interaction with experts that I have really enjoyed being around, here are some key characteristics that I look for in experts:
1) They are knowledgeable. 
2) They have valuable experience.
3) They are able to communicate their expertise.
4) They are connected to other experts.
5) They are humble about their expertise.
6) They are continuous learners.
7) They like to share their knowledge and wisdom.
8) They know the limitations of their own knowledge.
9) They have contributed to their field/area of expertise.
10) They are acknowledged as experts by others including their peers.

This old post by Lorelle Vanfossen, What gives you the right to tell me? highlights some of the key issues we had discussed during the #lrnchat and makes for a great reading. Lorelle says: "What you know is important, but how you use what you know, and plowing the path rather than following behind, makes the difference in defining an expert."

In this HBR podcast called 'Learning what wiser workers know', Dorothy Leonard, author of Critical Knowledge Transfer ​and Harvard Business School professor talks about retaining organizational expertise. While the focus of the conversation is about the need to transfer organizational knowledge and the tools and processes to do so, the definition of expertise is worth pondering about especially as it relates to an expert being open to sharing, being humble, and being a lifelong learner. 

She calls this organizational expertise ‘deep smarts’. She says, “One of the reasons that we focus on deep smarts and not just any kind of expertise, is that by definition, we’re talking about business critical, experience-based knowledge. And the managers who select or nominate experts whose knowledge is business critical and experience-based do have some sense of what’s important to keep things running or to innovate.” 

She goes on to say, “So one of the wonderful things about getting newcomers to work with experts is that you have a terrific opportunity for innovation. That does mean that the experts and the learners alike have to have a certain amount of humility to listen to each other and observe each other. But we have seen terrific instances where an expert with 30 years of experience learns from someone who comes in with a different set of skills, and vice versa. And it’s that two-way transfer. That’s why it’s a push-pull, not just a push.

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), as one would understand to be, is a world of experts. So, how do they define expertise? In a book published by Center for the Study of Intelligence, 'Analytic Culture in the U.S. Intelligence Community', the author, Dr. Rob Johnston, says: "Expertise is commitment coupled with creativity. By this, I mean the commitment of time, energy, and resources to a relatively narrow field of study and the creative energy necessary to generate new knowledge in that field. It takes a great deal of time and regular exposure to a large number of cases to become an expert."

He goes on to say, "Experts are individuals with specialized knowledge suited to perform the specific tasks for which they are trained, but that expertise does not necessarily transfer to other domains.

There are other paradoxes to expertise and sometimes being an expert can be a weakness. From the same book, "Although one would expect experts to be good forecasters, they are not particularly good at it. Researchers have been testing the ability of experts to make forecasts since the 1930s. The performance of experts has been tested against Bayesian probabilities to determine if they are better at making predictions than simple statistical models. Seventy years later, after more than 200 hundred experiments in different domains, it is clear that the answer is no."

Perhaps, this is where establishing teams of experts that offer more balanced expertise comes into play. But good teamwork and establishing collective intelligence is a challenge for another day. 

It seems that my study on this topic has just started. And in the journey of exploring various perspectives, I have taken the recommendation by George Siemens and got myself a copy of "The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance".  

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. ~ Socrates


  1. Nice synthesis. I remember there were very diverse opinions voiced during this chat. Strange enough we can agree on who is an expert or not in a given field but we have difficulties to agree on a definition. Maybe there are different types of experts. The domain, the role played could be differentiating them. Teaching experts (good at sharing), doing experts (can do or work on a domain better, faster than others), though leaders experts (find new knowledge, new way to combine or expose existing one).

    1. Thanks Bruno for your comment and feedback. Yes, it was an interesting learning that we all found it tough to agree on a definition of experts during the chat. I agree with you in that there are perhaps different types of experts and our definitions of experts and non-experts are sort of based on our own experiences and rewards (or challenges) of working with Subject Matter Experts or other domain experts.
      After I researched, I realized that much of what we see and read about expertise is based on the work of Chi et al. (1981) involving the studies of how experts and novices differ in solving problems. But Hatano and Inagaki (1986), described two types of expertise. They called it routine expertise (or classic expertise) and adaptive expertise. And it is quite interesting to read about the distinction that they offer in defining these two types of expertise. I have a feeling that some of our comments during the chat were coming from our experience of these two different types of expertise.
      As you can gather, I am still reading and uncovering many more interesting aspects about this topic and will definitely reflect and post more as I learn.


  2. I'm discouraged recently by a surprising amount of support for ideas like, "Believe you are an expert and you will be!" Your list is dead-on in terms of what to look for in a credible expert. One tip: They don't refer to themselves as "experts".

    1. Thanks Jane for your comment and the tip. Being 'perceived' as an expert is becoming a marketing fad and it is all around us. And this self fulfilling prophecy of these non experts is confusing and disheartening for people like me who know there is no shortcut to expertise and are trying to get there one step at a time along this list. This is another myth that needs debunking (it is The Debunker Club's Debunk Learning Styles Month after all!) and I look at you to help us get there!

  3. I'm on it. Also: It isn't a self-fulfilling prophecy if it isn't, er, fulfilled.

  4. Taruna

    Great compilation. I thing you got a comprehensive list of what defines an expert. Sometimes we do over-generalize the definition of expert. We tend to mix specialist and expert together. I wrote a post on same subject like called "9 universal abilities of Experts" from research. Here is summary of abilities I got from research.
    1. Superb mental knowledge representations:
    2. Ability to handle complexity very well
    3. Ability to efficiently store and recall information
    4. Ability to process information efficiently with minimum cognitive load
    5. Ability to selectively filter relevant information
    6. Deep problem solving skills
    7. Ability to recognize patterns
    8. Better strategies and meta-skills
    9. Intuitive decision making and intuition

    Hope this will add meaningfully to your discussions.

    Raman K. Attri
    Researcher - Training strategies to shorten time-to-proficiency
    Personal Resonance©: Accelerating Time-to-Expertise

    1. Thank you for your comment and feedback Raman. I really enjoyed reading your post on the universal abilities and agree with these abilities.

      I have always been very curious about the ability to make intuitive decisions. Although some theorists and general public opinion is that intuition and analytical thinking are at the opposite ends of the continuum; I feel you can't have one without the other.

      To me, analytical thinking done for previous experiences acts as an input for intuitive decision making done for new experiences.

      This is a such a great topic to learn and explore more about!

  5. Taruna:
    You raised a good point - analytical skills vs. intuitive skills. Fundamentally a proficient person uses lot more analytical skills whereas an expert is supposed to use more of intuition. As per famous skill acquisition models at expert level decision making and thinking turns more intuitive rather than analytical (which is driven by some maxims). So in a sense it is a progression from analytical skills to intuition which draw the boundary between a highly proficient and even highly specialist professional.

    I recently wrote three articles explaining how nature of skills get changed as a person turns competent, then proficient and then expert. These are based on several research studies. Have a look.

    6 Phases of Skill Acquisition in Towards Mastery: Combining Multiple Views of Dreyfus Model @

    12 Models of Skill Acquisition and Development: From a Novice to Expertise and Mastery @

    5 Famous Expertise Development Models Explain Novice to Mastery Skill Progression @

    Let me know what you think.

    Raman K. Attri
    Researcher - Training strategies to shorten time-to-proficiency
    Personal Resonance©: Accelerating Time-to-Expertise

    1. Thanks for sharing your work Raman. I found the articles extremely informative and my brain buzzed some more about analytical versus intuitive decision-making and the role of intuition in skill acquisition and development. Thanks for making me think!

      I participate in a weekly chat with other L&D folks and intuition was the topic for the day last week! Do join us at #lrnchat (@lrnchat) sometime. #lrnchat is on Thursdays at 8:30-9:30pm ET/5:30-6:30pm PT. I am sure you will find it interesting.