All of us are familiar with that one person at work who seems to have all the answers to all the problems. This person is usually someone who has been in the industry for a long time. We would have no hesitation in calling this person an expert in that area of work.

What if we had many experts in our organizations? What an amazing place that would be to work! Is it possible to build an organization where experts train others to be just like them?

The Value of an Expert

Expert knowledge needs to be organized in a way that it can be drawn upon whenever the need arises. Just like a workman who has an extensive toolbox that can be opened and the most appropriate tool to be selected and used to perform the task at hand, the expert can fall back on this organized knowledge base when the need arises.

The value of an expert can be best seen in Micheline Chi’s work, “Two Approaches to the Study of Experts’ Characteristics” in which she lists seven ways experts excel:

  • Generating the best: Experts can devise the best solutions to problems, even under time constraints. They can bring out the best designs and complete tasks faster and more accurately than non-experts.
  • Detection and recognition: Experts can identify features that can escape the eye of the novice, see patterns and perceive problems and situations in a way that is very different from others.
  • Qualitative analyses: Experts spend a great deal of time analyzing a problem qualitatively and can view a problem very differently because of the domain-specific and general knowledge they have acquired over time.
  • Self-monitoring skills: Experts detect errors more accurately, review the status of their own comprehension and have a more realistic view of their own abilities.
  • Use of appropriate strategy: Whether it is the ability to work forward from a given state to a goal state or backward from the unknown to the given state, the expert can choose the right strategy based on the situation, unlike a novice who will struggle to come up with what is needed to be done.
  • Opportunistic: Experts effectively make use of available resources to solve problems.
  • Cognitive effort: Experts can retrieve relevant domain knowledge and strategies with minimal cognitive effort. They can also execute their skills with greater automaticity and can exert greater control over those aspects of performance where control is desirable.

As can be seen from the above characteristics, the difference between the expert and the novice is that the expert has a thorough understanding of their domain and the ability to encode this knowledge into meaningful templates. These templates or schemas are meaningful relationships between various parts of the knowledge area and how they relate to the situation at hand.

The Cost of Losing Experts

There are at least two ways an organization can be impacted with the loss of knowledge and/or experts, according to Dorothy Leonard, Walter Swap and Gavin Barton in their book, “Critical Knowledge Transfer.”

  • The invisible hit to the bottom line of the organization: When an expert leaves, there is loss of years of experience, loss of professional networks that were cultivated and time taken to cover the gaps left by the expert leaving.
  • The loss of the capacity to innovate: Innovation often comes from the application of knowledge that has been accumulated over time. Thus, loss of proprietary knowledge can severely dent the ability and speed to create the next generation of products and services.

The journey from novice to expert is a long and arduous one. It is therefore important for organizations to harness the ability of the expert and put it to good use. Organizations must do everything they can to ensure that experts and their expertise are not lost to retirement, transfer or resignation.

The Journey to Becoming an Expert

One does not become an expert overnight. In their book, “Mind over Machine,” Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus state that human beings acquire skills through instruction and experience. They do not appear to leap suddenly from rule-guided “know-that” to experience-based “know-how.”

Skill acquisition is a process. Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus lay out a five-stage process in which a person goes through different perceptions of the task at hand. Their ability to perform improves as each stage is crossed. The Dreyfus model of skill acquisition has the following stages:

  1. Novice: One has minimal knowledge, needs close supervision, is unable to deal with complexity and tends to view all actions related to the job in isolation.
  2. Beginner: One has a working knowledge of key concepts and can perform straightforward tasks without supervision but still views actions as a series of tasks.
  3. Competent: One can perform most tasks using one’s own judgement because of good background knowledge. One also can cope with complex situations and views actions as long-term goals.
  4. Proficient: One has a deep understanding of the discipline, which results in an acceptable level of performance. One also can cope with complexity and can make confident decisions.
  5. Expert: A complex situation can be sized up by both intuition and analysis. The overall picture can be visualized, along with the ability to view things beyond just the immediate future.

A cursory look at the stages show that this is a process that requires time and the right kind of environment. An L&D leader has the responsibility to ensure that individuals can smoothly transition from one stage to another. Formal classroom instruction or providing access to on-demand eLearning assets can be utilized in the initial stages of knowledge acquisition. When this is undergirded with support from supervisors who provide timely feedback, the process is strengthened further.

For an individual to become more competent and move further up the value chain, L&D needs to put in place a system of coaching, mentoring, job-shadowing, etc. Learners also need to feel psychologically safe, their failures or mistakes not just tolerated but encouraged so that lessons can be learned and shared with others in the organization. Conducting regular sessions where failures, and the lessons they inspired, are discussed openly are a great way to move the needle on expertise.

Transfer of Expertise Across an Organization

The need to transfer knowledge held by experts to others in an organization is critical. This transfer requires at least three groups of people to work together to make it happen: the experts who possess the knowledge, the learners who will receive the knowledge and the facilitators who will make it happen.

Let’s look at what each of these groups can do to ensure expertise is transferred across the organization.

Facilitator: Facilitators must not only identify the experts, but they must also know how much of that knowledge is not captured in the standards, processes and equipment within an organization. This can be done by having conversations with the experts and having them discuss the unique challenges that they have experienced and how those problems were resolved.

Learner: The transfer of knowledge from an expert to a learner can be complicated by how much the learner knows and the willingness of the learner to become an expert. The individual learner should be encouraged to seek out experts and learn from them. Motivating learners to be the best in their respective field can enable them to become the next generation of experts.

Expert: Experts can be given a platform within the organization, where they can showcase their knowledge areas. This can be done by publicizing their accomplishments, by holding knowledge transfer sessions, or having them participate in industry events. Getting the expert to explain how a certain decision or conclusion was arrived at is another very effective means of capturing the wisdom of an expert. Other tactics include:

  • Allocating more responsibility to the individual, the manager and the L&D community.
  • Creating an environment that is conducive for experts to be identified, nurtured and encouraged to share their knowledge with others.

Whatever means the organizations chooses, it is imperative that expert knowledge is captured and transferred so that it is not lost when the expert leaves the organization.