The Intentional Organisation - Issue #25 - The Dangerous Expert
1. The Dangerous Expert.
I recently read an interesting opinion article by Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) on The New York Times titled "We’re All ‘Experts’ Now. That’s Not a Good Thing". Based on the author's research on scams and how these are deeply rooted in a culture of misinformation. What we keep reading around the Covid-19 pandemics in terms of information quality is under the eyes of everyone.
Being Experts in Everything
A partial explanation is that modern society has led us to become experts in everything. Let's stop one moment and reason on this. You access a website, and you're supposed to read a long page of Terms & Conditions, written in the legal jargon of a country that most probably is not even yours. You buy a new piece of electronic, and most probably, the handbook weighs more than the tool you actually bought. Not to mention the guide on your tax return. And what about that subsidy program to install solar panels on your roof?
This made me think about an aspect we often neglect when addressing discussions about organisations and their design. The traditional organisational model based on the division of labour and command-and-control based on hierarchy was established on the assumption that people "expert" in one part of the work would reach their best performance instead of someone generically trying to do everything.
If we retain this principle in mind, without looking at the excessive atomization of tasks that came through Taylorism, we can understand why the traditional, expertise-led, competency-based functional model has lasted so long. It also explains why the democratic experience that citizens had as part of their political systems, somewhat stopped at the door of an enterprise.
Expertise and Democracy
Democracy in itself advocates for citizens to form an opinion about almost everything. During my residence in Switzerland, I was fascinated by the number of referenda on topics I had not a single clue about. The basic idea behind the democratic principle is that enough citizens will take rightful decisions by making appeals to Common Sense and on issues that are not known to the individuals. Democracy forms this by the political conscience of often opposing views. Yet, most modern societies have created levels of delegation, exactly because governing is not an easy task. But the debate between democracy and expertise is still hot.
However, here lies an important weakness that we have all lived in in the past two years. Imagine (pun intended) there's a pandemic hitting the road with a new unknown virus. Scientific knowledge needs to form against research and experiments; time is needed to find a cure and a vaccine. All sound so familiar. But, what happens when also this process is put against the background of ideological polarized views? Everyone entitles itself to become an expert on issues that should really be the domain of science and real expertise.
This weakness would not be truly a problem if we would be talking of soccer, olympic games or the last NBA game (other domains where everyone easily becomes an "expert". During Soccer World Cup in Italy we easily see about 56 million citizens transforming in expert coaches.... but I guess the same applies elsewhere). But there are many areas where developing partisands views on fields we're not expert in can be truly dangerous.
Should we ask all to be Expert in our organisations?
If we translate this issue into an organisational context, you can immediately see a problem arising, one that has been very consistently affecting operations across many companies in many countries, with HR effectively having to transform itself into healthcare professional. Whether we are talking about mask mandates or vaccinations, we have had to manage the ideological opposition of the many who entitled themselves to be "experts" also in the field of virology.
This is where the current traditional organizational model has an advantage, refined over decades of practice. Functional hierarchies segregate duties based on competencies, checked and assessed from recruiting on into internal career development. Far from always being perfect and fair, this system has guaranteed people to be certain about what expertise is required for their job, and that somebody else will take care of areas they're not expert in. Companies have traditionally focused on providing the further skills needed to progress in a firm (compliance, managerial and leadership training, performance management, budgeting process etc.) where needed. Specialization is an asset.
As we suggest alternative organisational models, we need to consider the risk of asking people to become "experts" in everything, with the associated dilemmas that come into place. Several modern tools critical to today's transformation require people to think and act across multiple knowledge domains. Think about Service Design. When we ask employees to put themselves in their customers' shoes, we're effectively asking them to stretch beyond traditional competency sets.
Intentionally Building T-Shaped Skills
The answer is to embed in our organization design the tools and strategies to promote T-Shaped Skillsets, acknowledging from the beginning that not everyone is a multipotentialite and that many people may feel not at ease with being asked to think across different knowledge domains.
Above all, we need to be clear that organizations should not think about the consumerization of knowledge. Employees should not be treated as consumers who vote with their share of wallet, independently from their actual competencies. This is why even in a humanocracy inspired organisation there is a clear role for competencies, performance and productivity.
I suspect that many of the failures in consent-based organization models are exactly linked to the fact that we have been asking people to have opinions about too many aspects of their work, well beyond their confidence zone.
As we approach a world of work based on a new meaning, we need to consider the limits of asking everyone to be an expert in everything. This will mean adapting also the broader educational model to what is becoming a requirement of a new society, but as we know, this will take time. For the moment, we need to think about intentionally building a new model of thinking in terms of competencies, expertise and knowledge flows in our organisations.
So, how do you think we should embed this aspect into our organization strategy?
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