If you meet the expert on the road, kill her

[late-night rant. you have been warned!]

We need expertise. We don’t need experts.

I want to work out how to build our skills together, rather than turning people into blinkered ‘experts’ in some narrow specialism.

The existence of ‘experts’ represents the failure of a community to cope with some issue. You can’t understand something, so you put a box around it and let one person tell you how to deal with it.

And once that has happened, the rest of the community can stop trying. They have an excuse not to think about the issue, and the experts protect their own position with jargon and intimidation. Knowledge becomes binary – you’re either an expert or an ignoramus. The barrier between the two is hard to cross.

What’s the alternative? Look at cookery. Some of us are gourmet chefs, some can barely peel a potato. But through all that range, there is no sudden point where somebody becomes an expert. And as a consequence we can all join in, we can all work together to cook a meal. And because we can work together, knowledge can pass along the spectrum, from cordon bleu to novice.

Imagine if we treated accounting like cookery. Sure, @arthurd would be in charge, but the rest of us would be chopping the carrots, and stirring the soup, and watching, and learning. And soon enough, somebody else would be ready to plan a meal without Arthur.

Government and corporations share a flawed love of experts. Partly it’s for ease of management – assigning work to a relevant ‘expert’ means you don’t need to break it down any further. Partly it’s because they don’t care about the inequity created.

Mostly, I think, it’s because they haven’t adjusted to a world of abundant education, free information, and easy communication. We have what @rmchase would call excess capacity in all the “knowledge industries”. We are surrounded by skilled, talented young people. But management ignores them in favour of the person who has spent 20 years in a vaguely related field, even if that field has now changed so much that their experience is irrelevant.

We can do better. Certainly better than government, maybe better than the corporations.

We can recognize that any skill is weak when it is owned by a few experts, and strong when it is the common property of the community. When we encounter an expert, our reaction should be to pull the expertise out and share it among the community. We should turn our experts into mentors, teachers, guides.

And in doing so, we can treat the experts as human. We can value them for the content of their character, for their engagement with the community, not for the length of their experience or the market worth of their skills. We can offer community and collaboration, interactions based on mutual respect rather than deference.

How do we get there? When I have a skill you don’t, I’ll teach it. When you can do something I can’t, I’ll listen and learn and help. And when there’s a job to be done I’ll stop looking for experts, and start looking to our community.


Which also means…

I feel exactly the same way, Daniel. Scrap that: this is not about how I feelI have observed time and again that groups or local communities that take time hacking at problems perform much better in the long run (I use “perform” essentially in regional development terms – I have looked at these issues mostly as a development economist).

Now, the interesting bit is that high performance is arrived at through performing poorly in the short run. Buying the superior solution that works out of the box gets the job done better and faster than making your own homegrown solution. And yet, people that consistently choose the inefficient path thrive (if they survive the initial pain from driving around in their horsecarts while everyone else is zooming in their shiny flying cars). If this is true, the whole make-or-buy dilemma has a trivial solution: always make, whenever you can, never buy.

Hausmann’s and Hidalgo’s product space is a way to generalize this idea, and indeed to vindicate it in a foreign trade perspective. In a nutshell: you don’t measure economic health by transactions volume (like in GDP), but in capabilities. A healthy economy is an economy that knows how to make many things. Sounds reasonable to me!

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This resonates very deeply with me. It’s why I am so committed

to building and developing Edgeryders into something sustainable. If we can give ourselves a little breathing space then we can also afford to take more time to teach and learn, not go the most “efficient” way and be less dependent on arbitrary rules dictating what we do and when.

This means we do need to sort out some of the basics, e.g. get ourselves and others into permanently affordable work and living spaces, learn to become master collaborators etc.

What it means for me personally is obsessively figuring out how to build means for us all to do this work, i.e. revenue streams. This needs to be a shared effort because building any kind of business or income generating activity is hard. How do we get smarter and more capable together? I think this is key because I really do not want to see great people doing important work living in perpetual precarity. I just don’t think it’s resilient. Also, life is short.

Another thing is means is learning how to engage a critical mass of people in building and sustain this community, developing new opportunities for everyone etc. I

Thanks for writing the post.