Expertise and Novelty: Taking action when facing the unknown

12 Jun

I have come to rely on and enjoy several regularly occurring Twitterstorms (or chats, or flurries – there are several terms I’ve seen applied). Last month I was particularly drawn to one of my favorite events, #lrnchat (“learn chat”), which centered on the idea of expertise. And, while I was unable to participate in real time–I was in Japan at the time–one of the beauties of the Twitterstorm is that it lives on for all to return to even if someone is unable to participate live. Indeed, it is one of the greatest things about our digital-social learning age that the lines between “live” events and persistent online conversation are blurred. It’s easy to find the transcript of the May 21, 2015, #lrnchat session, and there is nothing that prevents me from adding to it and responding to particular comments or questions long after the storm has passed.

The topic of expertise and authority relates to a post I wrote a few weeks ago in which I used chess as a paradigm for understanding and applying principles in novel situations. And I got to thinking: That is the essence of expertise.

An expert is not someone who is able to replicate (even) complex tasks as a result of practice and repetition. An expert is someone who can draw on what they’ve gained from practice and repetition as it applies to unexpected situations and complex problems that have either not been tackled before or that, through creative insight, are wholly new ideas to test.

So, what does expertise entail?

Right. As Harold Jarche, Jane Hart, and others have written recently, as we move to a workplace where machines perform most routine tasks, expertise will be the essential skill for tackling the remainder: complexity, novelty, inference, and creativity.

Which brings us back to chess (or poker, or tennis, or sailing, or just about any domain you can think of). What is an expert player? Expertise is not about mastering and executing complex moves. I can learn how to perform backward pawn structure or the double fork attack, but that won’t make me an expert. Expertise is knowing when to perform these tactics given the novelty of every chess situation. An expert is comfortable with experimentation and creativity, failure and success, experimentation and continuous learning. An expert has insight into a problem that eludes others. Expertise, then, is more akin to a sage or guru.

Therein lies our challenge: How do we build organizations of sages, gurus and visionaries? The second salient answer to emerge from the #lrnchat session gets us a good distance down that road. In the digital world, our networks are repositories on which to draw expertise and our digital skills bring the gurus down from the mountain top to be accessible to all:

Earlier this year, Dion Hinchcliffe outlined a set of essential digital workforce skills, and among them were PKM (Personal Knowledge Mastery), transparency and “working out loud” – all part of building and sharing expertise. In short, it is incumbent that modern workers/learners concentrate of building personal expertise in their field, with a mindset that values deep understanding over a particular set of skills. Acting decisively in the void of the unknown is the essence of expertise.

Authority rests now with those who can lead with expertise and generosity, and who freely share without hesitation or expectation of immediate return. The question becomes, in what domain(s) are you building your expertise? And, how are you sharing it?

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