Are you an expert? (Or willing to be called one?)

One of the programs I’ve been working on at IBM relates to creating a system that enables IBM’s experts to appear in digital experiences at scale — this means going beyond the age-old editorial system for identifying key spokespersons and, instead, creating a web service to identify and describe tens of thousands of experts and put their pictures and profiles in relevant digital contexts.  That first bit, it turns out, is the easy part.  The tougher part is, naturally, trying to devise a system to make the expert interactions valuable and safe for all involved.  I’ll talk about that more another time, but the past few days I’ve been thinking about the word expert itself.

I see a lot of companies using it in their web presences — Cap Gemini, Intel, Siemens, GE etc.  But I wonder what the implications are in digital social spaces that, for one thing, span new cultural boundaries and cross new legal hurdles daily (sometimes with varying degrees of success) and how we can scale up the interactions meaningfully.

Despite its power as a word, I have always had misgivings about the term ‘expert’ because…

  • I don’t think it is a culturally neutral term (as traveled to Korea, Japan, France etc last year I found that not every language uses this word in the same way…and not every group of people have the same level of comfort with declaring their expertise publicly as many Americans do.)
  • The credibility of ‘experts’ is not always greater than the credibility of ‘just some guy.’  I’m in the midst of buying a new A/V receiver and have read countless reviews from ordinary consumers along with reviews from expert audiophiles…I’m balancing both inputs to my decision.
  • I think people who self-proclaim as ‘experts’ can be in a pickle…it is hard to be wrong when you are an expert.  My dad used to say “an expert is someone who can’t admit they are wrong.”  That may be an unattributed quote from somewhere else, but still 🙂 Basically, I think the typical understanding of the term ‘expert’ isn’t really compatible with IBM’s notions of collaborative innovation.
  • Asking people to self-select as an ‘expert’ can actually work as a passive filter that excludes people who would be worth including (such as extremely humble subject matter experts who might be the best face of our brand in digital interactions!)
  • There is potential legal landmine here — if someone is declared and ‘expert’ by your company and they say something wrong, your company could be exposed.

How is your company/organization qualifying experts?  Have you found a clever way to describe individual experts in your organization (I’d really love to hear about it!)?

By the way, you can see examples of the expertise-locator system we’ve built on IBM’s centennial site and IBM’s smarter planet site…we’ll be adding the service to many more sites, blogs,  apps and experiences this year.

14 thoughts on “Are you an expert? (Or willing to be called one?)

  1. Excellent post, Ethan. You hit at the heart of discussions we’ve been having across IBM circles for awhile now. I’d love to hear what other companies are doing in enabling their employees to work with and provide benefit to the larger public in a way that provides value in socially, ethically, and legally (etc) responsible ways.

  2. Ethan,

    How fortuitous that I happened upon your blog post! I happen to be an expert in the area of identifying and qualifying certified experts. My rates are quire reasonable and I may even be able to develop and algorithm to auto-qualify experts on the fly, probably for less than $10M (up front of course). I cannot reveal any details due to IP issues but we may be able to work out a non-disclosure. Please contact me if you are interested.

    Seriously tho- I can imagine a reputation rating much like eb*y where past performance might indicate a level of expertise…


    1. Chris — where do I write the check?!?!
      But yeah…linking in a reward and recognition system is something I’ve been thinking about (I’m not along on this, I see lots of examples of recognizing experts within systems like etc emerging.) I don’t think any big organization has quite cracked the code on that though for employees. Ebay works because you are essentially making ratings on an open market and there’s no employment contract…it gets a lot trickier when you are talking about people hired to do something specific who may not want their performance rating openly tied to the market’s opinion of their deliverables. Lots of people would resists this and there are even some nations (e.g. Germany, France, Italy) where I believe this kind of evaluation system violates privacy laws.

  3. Interesting to see you talking about this, with regard to corporate experts (ie. that you are looking for outward-facing experts rather than as experts for others within the organization). Academic institutions, of course, do this all the time, and I suspect that many corporations – maybe IBM? – are emulating these kinds of orgs. For instance, here is a rather decent one from the Kellogg School of Management. A rather amateurish one is at my own school’s website.

    I remember some years ago meeting with a guy from McKinsey, who was fighting an internal battle to identify local experts within the organization – it was in the form of a knowledge management problem. That is, if you’re working on utility deregulation, how to avoid re-inventing the wheel, and identifying the awesome woman in that space who already has been where you are trying to go.

    It was a surprisingly hard problem, which he was trying to solve with technology, not culture. Somehow identifying via a semantic search who has expertise in what, and thus avoiding the problem of having to require employees to log their work (which people resist) or information hoarding (which is much more pervasive problem in a knowledge-intensive workplace).

    FWIW, I’m all about expertise, though maybe I think more broadly about how appealing ‘craft’ is..

    1. Peter — thanks for the reply and especially for the excellent example from Kellogg. I didn’t realize they made such fine websites and such great breakfast cereals.
      I kid!
      I wonder if behind the Kellogg site they are thinking about syndicating those experts’ profiles into other digital experiences (or even just to other parts of their website.) They seem to have a pervasive faculty search experience in the right column, so I guess that is a start.
      And yeah, we are doing some stuff at IBM that sounds like the McKinsey example you give — I actually know some of the patent holders at IBM for our social search engine. On our intranet’s search engine you get results derived from the social behaviors (tagging, publishing, file-sharing, blogging etc) of individuals. The results are influenced by what I have heard refered to as a semantic engine.
      Please contribute your best semantic engine jokes here….

  4. Ethan,
    First, thanks for the well-rounded thoughtful analysis of the word expert. I think it’s important to consider the terms we use and it’s a good point that you make about the variance in meaning between cultures. To not acknowledge cultural differences and be sensitive to them — to assert that there is one meaning of expert — the meaning we take in American English — is a form of, well to be honest, “intellectual colonialism”.

    The problem that I have with social media using the term “expert”, “guru”, or even “subject matter experts” is that it refers to the pre-social media days where they were considered vetted/credentialed experts that served as authorities above and beyond the understanding and experiences of lay people. Social media transforms all that. Because of social media, lay people can contribute their voices to the discussion and content. (see Clay Shirky’s book, Here Comes Everybody). Therefore, to me, using a non-social media term in the social media context is confusing because it relies on its prior non-social media definition which directly opposes the new social media context. Where this is “authority” then there is someone without authority, which means there is hierarchy, which means that it is against what social media stands for… you see the point.

    I’m an IBMer and a phd student studying innovation, creativity, and interpersonal and computer-mediated communication and I wrote an article about social media that will be published on w3 next week and I still don’t consider myself an “expert” because that means that what I have to say come across as too authoritative and may squelch someone else’s very important perspective. I could be wrong too :).

    Even as the tool is called expertise locator, I still think expertise is a little bit heavy as a term.

    Why can’t we call it skill? And why can’t we have a skill rating for ourselves? And, a number-of-years of-skill-building metric? I’d be happy to say I was skilled in my PhD areas over the last 6 years, and in programming portlets on w3 over the last 4 years — and I’d be happy to say I was rated 7, 8, or 9, out of 10. Anyone who looks me up on a tool can see there are people with higher/lower skills ratings and more/less years building the skill than me and determine for themselves —
    we don’t have to make decisions for people by telling them who is an expert. And that, people deciding for themselves, is what social media is all about. 🙂

  5. I once had a manager who said that experts were the combination of ‘X’ and ‘Spurt’ where X is an unknown quantity and a ‘Spurt’ is a drip under pressure. He was suggesting that far too many people claiming to be experts could not be relied upon to actually have genuine expertise.

    As a side note, a common mistake I see many presenters make is that they will ask a question like “Who here understands VMwares cloud solutions?” Maybe 10% raise their hands. Then they ask, “Who here does NOT understand VMwares cloud solutions?”, again maybe 10% raise their hands. We are thus left with 80% of people who did not wish to publicly declare their self evaluation of their own skill level. The moment you declare yourself an ‘expert’ you certainly declare a certain level of self evaluation #;-) Sadly even the self-evaluators who do ‘declare’ are also often wrong.

    In the end expertise has to be demonstrated by a body of work, by demonstrating achievements that are worthy of recognition. It easy for an artist (like a singer or a painter) to show their body of work… but even for them, evaluation can be quite skewed (just because you have a million views on YoutTube does not make you the next Elvis). But for IT professionals, they need a framework in which to benchmark their expertise against their peers. IBM has such systems, but in my opinion they still rely too heavily on self-evaluation.

    I look forward to hearing more on how we could better categorize ‘experts’ as opposed to those unknown drips under pressure #:-)

  6. Interesting discussion. It’s worth noting that IBM’s internal Professions programme has a gradation of expertise. I don’t think it’s giving away any secrets to say that “Expert” is one of them – and a pretty high level, too.

    However, I wouldn’t want such formalisms to stand in the way of getting expertise “out there”. Just wanted to note we had the term “Expert” wrapped in some formal assessment.

  7. If you want to meet the world class experts take a look at ted,com – Ideas Worth Spreading.
    In particular: Noreena Hertz: “How to use experts — and when not to”
    – it is best found searching the site via her name.

  8. It is interesting Ethan noted the cultural differences in the definition of “expert”. In the US when one says expert, it represents somebody who knows the maximum, is current on a specific topic, and generally can express him/herself effectively. Having attended conferences with people from the former Soviet Union, I was taken back when the term expert was used as part of one’s title. After several inquiries I was told “expert” in Russian basically means a high-quality specialist.

    I was once designated an “expert” by the Japanese form NEC, in data flow programming, for no other reason I knew more about the topic than anybody else within a 100 mile radius of where I was presenting. Was I really an expert?

    There is a rather Darwinian vetting of “experts” – make a mistake in public and one will pay the consequences, at least in the US – unless you are an economist 🙂

  9. Nice read… I personally don’t care for the term expert; to me it doesn’t mean anything anymore. At one point in time, you could go to the “expert” to get your question answered. If the expert couldn’t answer the question, you assumed there probably wasn’t an answer.

    Unfortunately today, we have to many self proclaimed experts, in my opinion. If you check out blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.. nearly everyone has expert build into their description somewhere. When a technical question is asked and a couple of different experts try to answer, and all have different answers, you really have to start wondering.

    Certification may be a way to qualify. But again, if certification can be faked. I know, you are beginning to think I don’t trust anyone…

    The case I don’t mind expert too much, is when it is applied to a person by his/her peers. If all of the people you work with think you are the expert, and you are all working on the same thing, then maybe you are the most knowledgeable on the subject.

    I was once told a long time ago that an expert is the person who has already made most of the mistakes. I’ve always liked that.. although in the technology world we live in today, I’m sure one could stay employed very long if they attempted to make all of the mistakes.

    This is such an interesting topic that would be great to have over a cup of coffee. You’ll have to let us know what you come up with or how you decide to handle.

    For now though, after reading you post and the above comments, I think I need to go remove the line in my resume about being an “expert”… (smile)…

  10. Finding and qualifying experts – this is truly something to ponder about. As someone based out of Asia, I believe that most experts over here fall into the category of “humble subject matter experts”, EXCEPT for those “selling” their expertise as a means of making a living, e.g. trainers and coaches. What I would think is that at the end of the day, it really boils down to “what’s in it for me” before someone is ready to call themselves an expert. One may possess the necessary skills, and expertise, but he may not be as ready to advise or comment, except when there is a clearer end in mind.

    That said, when it comes to qualifying experts, I believe the yardstick should really depend on our objectives. How much of “expertise” would you need to engage white space prospects over social media channels, as opposed to “expertise” to walk through, analyze and propose technology solutions based on a unique client’s pain point, such as risk management?

    At the end of the day, as the business operates, we just can’t wait for the perfect “expert” to appear before making an appearance. Other attributes such as willingness to participate in social media, prose and charisma should also be considered in the makings of an expert.

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