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How much expertise per person?

A column in the August 2009 issue of Control Global magazine discusses the loss of what the authors estimate as 25% of the nation's industrial-process expertise. It's clearly a rough estimate -- after all, nobody really knows how much expertise is attributable to each individual in an organization. But it's not hard to imagine that the 25% figure is plausible. The stock-market decline of the last year revealed that many Baby Boomers have too little in savings to retire comfortably, and may have to continue working beyond the standard retirement age of 65. But it can't be overlooked that somewhere between 15% and 20% of the working population is over the age of 55. As that working population retires, whether voluntarily or due to health and other factors, they are going to take their knowledge out of the institutions where they work -- unless their organizations make a deliberate effort to capture that knowledge.

Among the "unappreciated skills" cited by the authors that could be used to help enhance an institution's ability to retain that knowledge are two simple but likely under-utilized habits:

  • Managers need to give their employees a sense of value and appreciation. People who feel under-appreciated are more likely to take exit opportunities like retirement or other job offers than they would if they were deliberately praised for their contributions.
  • People who ask obscure questions and cite potential difficulties in advance ought to be encouraged to do so, rather than discouraged from making life difficult for the rest of the team. The ability to make connections between parts of a system that might otherwise go unnoticed is a characteristic of an expert, and that ability should be openly encouraged. Not only does it take advantage of that expertise when it's available; it also builds a culture of encouraging younger workers to refine themselves and their skills so that they can become experts as well.
Knowledge transfer isn't a simple process; witness the day-to-day struggle of any good teacher in America. But especially as the Baby Boom generation reaches retirement age and largely departs from the American workforce, the need to transfer their knowledge to the people left behind is as urgent as the need to provide the youngest workers with the basic skills to enter the labor force.

We all know experience matters

People know that experience matters, but sometimes we understand neither how much it matters, nor how to measure it. It is said, for instance, that true mastery of a subject takes a lot more than just time: It requires deliberate practice and attention to improvement. Even those we think of as prodigies often required years of focus and practice to achieve mastery in their fields.

An excellent discussion of the very notions of "expertise" and "mastery" from Legg Mason Capital Management suggests that the differences between experts and run-of-the-mill "old hands" at a task are many:

  • Experts are practiced in the art of pattern recognition within their fields. They can see when patterns have emerged that would otherwise be missed by those who have less experience or who have spent less time deliberately learning the patterns of their work.
  • Experts look beyond the superficial to recognize deeper problems. While it might be easy to diagnose a problem, it may be much harder to see the cause behind the cause; that is, to see what circumstances are causing a particular problem to emerge. Second- and third-order causes are difficult to recognize if all of a person's cognitive attention is devoted to figuring out the symptoms.
  • Experts are especially good at knowing the limits of their own competence. Warren Buffett may be regarded as the world's greatest living investor, but he frequently refers in his annual letters to the importance of staying within his "circle of competence". Experts know where their circles of competence end -- and they regularly test themselves to learn from their failures.
What's difficult to tell is just how easy (or hard) it is to transfer expertise from one individual to another. If all expertise were merely a matter of apprenticeship, then anyone could become an expert simply by spending a sufficient amount of time with a skilled professional. That is clearly not enough -- but it does point us in the right direction.

The more expertise we can find "bottled up" inside an organization, the more important it becomes to find younger individuals -- perhaps even a full generation younger than the experts -- and encourage them to practice deliberate expertise-building in their daily work. From studies of expertise, it appears that a deliberate emphasis on pattern recognition and self-testing for success and failure may be the best way to develop the successor generations of experts.

Perhaps a good place to look for guidance about developing experts is the demolition industry -- it's at least as much art as science, and there's a colossal difference between a demolition team that knows what it's doing and one that doesn't. Because it might be funny to watch a building go rolling down a street instead of imploding, but that certainly wasn't the safest outcome. Expertise would've made a lot of difference to the outcome.

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