On Expertise

As this post talks about work a bit, I note here that this doesn't reflect the opinions of any past or present employers. Timelines are deliberately ambiguous, in the same way a comic will say "the other day" to signify some time between forever ago and never.


"When people say their processes can't be automated, it means they have data the rest of us don't have, but need to get."

"This year we're going to work on moving from being a business that succeeds because of its people to one which succeeds because of its processes."

This thinking isn't new - those lines came from conversations a decade apart, one right as I was getting into the job market, one more recently. It's easy to understand why a business wants to ensure their operations don't rise or fall based on the knowledge of an individual. I've heard this called "The Bus Factor," (I thought by Joel Spolsky, though I can't find his reference to it) - the number of people who can be hit by a bus without threatening the success of a project. Theoretically, a high bus factor is ideal for everyone involved - the team as a whole is stable and secure, and no one has their vacations interrupted by frantic conference calls because they're the only person who knows the procedure for turning the conveyer belt on.

In practice, this isn't always so simple. Setting up a task so that anyone could step in and do it makes a person feel their work isn't valuable or appreciated. Most people have seen the lower bound of this problem:

EMPLOYEE: In some ways I'm the most crucial person here, because if I don't do my job none of our orders are processed.

TRANSLATION: I open the mail.

EMPLOYEE: I know this is true, because when I'm not here, no orders are processed.

TRANSLATION: When I go home, I take the mailbox key with me.

Similarly, the upper bound is easy to recognize - most of us don't want any medical procedure done by a project manager who took a nurse out to coffee and asked for a quick summary of the high level problems they face. Not all jobs can be figured out on the fly by a person of reasonable intelligence. But the space in between is harder to evaluate - which problems really need to be solved by people with years of expertise, and which can be reduced to just-in-time processes?

I've worked on both sides of that divide, and in general the Process Analysis Consultant is given the benefit of the doubt, with any failures excused because the experts on the ground didn't tell effectively communicate every detail they had acquired in years on the job in a thirty minute meeting. It is rare that someone concludes "maybe we should have trusted someone who knew what they were talking about."

The tendency to devalue hard-won knowledge spills over into other areas of life, too. John Finnemore's sketch about a pub argument being ruined by smartphones suggests that we used to be ignorant before we could look everything up online, but I think this perspective is backward - we used to actually know things. Our access to the sum of human knowledge is better than ever in the smart phone age, but the sum of human knowledge only increases by people synthesizing things they already know to produce new insights. The fewer things we already know, the less this synthesis happens.

I was talking to someone the other day who grew up in the neighborhood I currently live in. At least, I think they did. They referenced many places I had heard of, and told me where they lived in relation to those. Do I possess the information needed to visualize those places and how they intersect? Definitely not, I get around blindly following the maps on my phone (worse, they’re Apple Maps). Most of the time, I get where I need to go, but my understanding of the place where I live, and my interaction with the people who live here, is greatly diminished because of the connections I can't make. It takes expertise I don't yet have.

Is there a better way forward? On the business side, I wonder if the affordance we give to people with MBAs but no subject matter expertise might be just as useful working the other way. If we gave more subject matter experts the chance to learn other business skills, we might discover it's the Consulting Process Analysts whose roles can be quickly learned on the fly with no prior experience. As for recapturing the need to actually know things in the rest of our lives, it will take bitter experience for us to see the light… as we catch our partner slyly opening a dating app to make sure they have our name right, before introducing us to their parents. Sometimes it's worth really knowing things.