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What Makes an Expert in the Business World?

Expert physicist Niels Bohr said, "An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field." But what makes an expert in the world of business?

An expert can be defined as one who has much training in and knowledge of a particular subject. Niels Bohr, father of modern theories of atomic energy, said that "an expert is a person who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field." Expertise is the mastery of a body of knowledge and use of that knowledge in practical ways. Handling an axe well is a skill, not a subject suitable for expertise. Understanding how to manage a lumber company or analyzing how the paper industry operates are areas of expertise.

Over time, societies and companies have accepted certain general terms to describe topics or bodies of knowledge. These are typically reflected in examples like departments in a university, and the courses they offer. In business, these bodies of knowledge may be narrower in scope, e.g., the management of R&D in a high-tech arena. Fields have been carved out by people specializing in narrow bodies of knowledge in response to the demand for such expertise. For example, there are experts in how to manufacture certain types of computer chips, how to add preservatives to cheese, and how to perform certain types of surgery.

As our knowledge of things expands, the ability of an individual to know all things about a field diminishes. Knowledge in medicine, for example, doubles every several years. Consequently, new fields are created and recognized, emerging from a more generalized and broader earlier one. The knowledge of accounting broke down into ABC methods, auditing, and other subfields. Information science broke down into programming, operations, systems design, and computer manufacturing. Computer manufacturing is broken even further into subfields of PCs, large mainframes, components of these machines, and then, of course, all the software needed to run these gizmos. The philosophers would tell us that no knowledge is obsolete. But since the definition of expertise in business also includes application of knowledge, that which is not applied becomes obsolete. In business, relevant knowledge leads to expertise and to experts, and to demand for their services, including their comments in articles, books, and presentations.

All fields of expertise are related to each other. Nothing ever happens in isolation from other activities. Expert fields are made up of a core body of knowledge, followed by building blocks of even more specialized or narrower fields. Accounting is a base field, ABC accounting a more specialized part of it. These in turn make it possible to develop skills. Over time, experts also redefine fields by broadening them to include ever-increasing amounts of related material from the periphery of their core expertise. Some experts acquire whole bodies of other known fields into their own. Thus, an expert on telephone centers might learn about telephone technology or customer service. An expert on statistics might also learn computer simulation. These are natural evolutions in the lives of experts, and they give deeper meaning to their work. Despite the tendency of individuals to learn more about narrower fields, experts eventually expand their definition of what constitutes the boundaries of their subject or start acquiring expertise in neighboring topics. These actions lead to the creation of new subfields because experts have a tendency to put new things together in different ways. For example, an historian coming into the business world might, after a time, begin to apply the lessons of history to current management problems in his or her company. It happens all the time.

Assuming that a field of knowledge exists, then learning a great deal about the subject can make you an expert. Knowing as much as there is to know about the subject and doing something with that knowledge can make you a great expert. Expertise is a prerequisite to responsible and important writing on a topic.

Characteristics of an Expert

Is there a recognizable pattern of behavior that would lead you to believe someone is an expert? It is an important question because if you do not behave like an expert, people won't take you seriously and, if you are writing for publication, you may not get published. So although it may not be necessary to role play all the characteristics of an expert, it turns out that experts do naturally behave in a certain way. Since many experts in business do not know that they are experts and hence more than qualified to write on their subjects, it is important to recognize the signs.

Experts are people who know things in an acknowledged body of knowledge. Knowing more than anybody else about Wisconsin's gray squirrel will not do it. Knowing more about North American rodents might do it, and understanding the behavior of small mammals definitely does. Being intimately familiar with employ-ee suggestion processes in business, while useful, is not necessarily a recognized field of knowledge. However, understanding personnel practices and quality management, of which suggestion processes are part, is such a field.

Experts are people who are very familiar with a large number of facts about a subject and know where to get more facts in a timely fashion. Their familiarity extends to how that knowledge is applied and how to stay current on the subject. Experts, for example, read the major journals in their field and know where to find the important books, articles, or other experts in their subject area. They also access key Internet sites and pertinent databases. In short, they routinely use all the obvious sources of facts.

Experts know other experts in their field. This networking process is extraordinarily important and represents a major activity of any expert. Fellow experts can help guide you to additional information and insight in a field, allow you to test your ideas, and help you to define the boundaries of the field. They can also suggest topics for you to write about and then can critique your manuscripts to help improve them. For many experts, human interaction is the single most important way they have to gain new insights to stimulate their thinking and to sharpen their perspectives. E-mail, databases, and publications alone cannot do the job. Humans need to speak to other people to most energize their intellectual and practical growth. Experts are no exception.

Experts are people who display or practice their body of expertise. A doctor who does not practice medicine is soon not regarded as an expert in medicine, and you and I would not take our problems to that doctor. This problem is particularly critical in fields undergoing dramatic and rapid change, such as those that rely heavily on technology (e.g., computers, medicine, telecommunications). Displaying expertise is an elegant way of saying one practices his or her profession, with the difference that it may include teaching, writing, or commenting on a subject. Consultants, for example, do all three.

Experts are people who are recognized as such. This recognition results from several activities common to all experts. They apply their expertise; teach the subject; comment on it in speeches, on radio and TV appearances; do research to enhance their knowledge of the topic; and publish on the subject. They become certified as experts through such techniques as apprenticing as might a carpenter, earning advanced degrees as might an economist or computer scientist, or gaining professional certification by taking courses taught by the ASQ, DPMA, AMA, APCIS, or any other professional organization. Some companies also have pseudodegree or formal certification processes for similar reasons. For example, IBM's internal certification process for all key professions fits into this category.

Experts gain recognition by winning prizes and awards. Each well-organized subject area, industry, and company typically awards outstanding performance by members of its field. The military gives out medals and citations for skills displayed in combat. Businesses give awards to successful salespeople in recognition of both their skills and accomplishments in sales. Most professional societies have their own awards to recognize hard work, significant results, and demonstrated thought leadership (mainly as a result of publications). No IEEE Fellow, for instance, was ever an incompetent engineer or scientist!

Experts expand or change the scope and definition of a field of knowledge. This is a level of performance not reached early in the life cycle of an expert, but great experts all have this characteristic. This definition includes the scientist who provides a new way of looking at a subject, discovers new knowledge (e.g., DNA or life on Mars), or successfully applies new techniques (e.g., heart transplants or a new way to analyze a company's core competencies). When Dr. W. Edwards Deming began to apply statistical process control to business functions in the 1950s, he introduced new concepts to business management that today are parts of a body of knowledge called quality management, with its heavy emphasis both on rigorous analysis and a strong bias toward providing high customer satisfaction. These notions are now pillars of modern methods of management.

Sometimes, expanding knowledge is ignored for a long time. B. F. Skinner, a Harvard University psychologist, was ignored for more than 15 years by other psychologists while developing behavioral psychology. He even had to start his own journal so that he and his fellow behaviorists could publish their work! Today his work is widely recognized and accepted. Experts today find, for example, that their company is not interested in ABC accounting, or quality management practices, or teaming, and so the time is not yet right for your expertise. The problem is that experts are often denied personal recognition in new fields because the world is not necessarily eager to accept new knowledge. But generally, these experts, because they persist, gain recognition within their lifetimes.

Experts usually make a living applying their subject. We have long known that this task is all consuming. John Oliver Hobbes in 1902 put it well: "A man with a career can have no time to waste upon his wife and friends; he has to devote it wholly to his enemies!" More recently, economist Paul A. Samuelson said, "I have always been overpaid to do that which I would pay to do." And finally from that wise and clever expert on many things, Benjamin Franklin: "He that hath a trade hath an estate and he that hath a calling hath an office of profit and honor."

Experts have some commonly identifiable patterns of behavior that are widely recognized. They are in love with their subject and are constantly searching for more information. Collectors, for example, are experts; they are constantly hunting for new stamps, books, antique jars, old cars, political campaign buttons, or whatever else they collect. You see experts constantly hunting through bookstores for publications on their subject; willingly discussing their subject enthusiastically day or night and ad nauseam; constantly trying to apply their expertise to all that they do; willing to spend evenings, weekends, and vacation time on their topic. Their subject often consumes their time, energy, and enthusiasm. Hobbes is right.

They also exhibit intense intellectual curiosity about their subject and about how they and others deal with it. Experts become very introspective about their own relationship to the subject. They dig long and hard to understand both obvious and subtle features. When not dealing with their subject, individuals may seem dull and uneducated, but never when it comes to their area of expertise.

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