X being an unknown quantity, and spurt being a drip under pressure


An old joke but one that started me thinking about experts and expertise. Do we need experts any more when information is available at the click of a mouse? What is their role as we look forward? Increasingly access to expertise is becoming more transparent, easier and cheaper. Google and similar search engines make finding solutions and answers to known problems or access to those who can help easier. Crowd sourcing solution sites such as Innocentive offer simple, timely and cheap means to access a global audience of solvers (from amateur to truly deep experts) for an ever increasing range of problems. Ideation schemes (whether internal or open innovation ) provide banks of ideas from the incremental to the novel.  Marketplaces and apps offer the opportunity to receive a range of quotes and possible solutions on a pull rather than pushed basis, providing real competition to conventional sales and marketing routes.  And in high growth areas such as app development the rapid change means that an expert will be someone with perhaps 2-3 years experience, not 20.

When I read the Oxford Martin School’s paper on the probability of automation it seemed to me that many of the most likely jobs which could be automated were focused on the type of expertise that relied on knowledge and information – built up over many years. It isn’t really difficult to believe that a supercomputer like IBM’s Watson, with all its capacity and processing power would indeed be more accurate in diagnosis than a doctor (which is not of course the same thing as trusting it more . . . )

So if it is not expertise based on knowledge that is still needed then what else? The security of someone giving you ‘the solution’? I’ve spent a lot of time with experts whose experience leads them time and again to identify the issue and be able to apply solutions from elsewhere to get to the best action plan. My concern there is that in a VUCA world there is no guarantee that the solution that worked last time is the best for today (let alone tomorrow) or even that the underlying problem or question remains the same. Scenario planning and systems thinking are coming back into fashion – no surprise given the complexity of today’s world, but neither of them posits a nice simple ‘one right answer’. So maybe it’s not to give us certainty then.

Most rapid change happens in the B2C environment, driven by individuals and consumers. This offers B2B the ability to identify changes that may subsequently impact the B2B environment. One such is the increasing influence over brands and purchasing by the consumer themselves. The role of ‘people like me’ in providing trusted judgement, the ability to personalise, the focus on experience and resonance (is it cool?) are all drivers of this shift – which is driven by the underlying level of connectivity and transparency (for example reviewing pricing through comparison sites). There are some signs that this degree of ‘pull’ from customers is beginning to be seen in the B2B space. The impact on expertise is that those with problems are not necessarily looking any more to be given a prescribed solution or told what to do. Increasingly people want options, alternatives with a holistic assessment of each and the decision to be clearly theirs – you might look in the shop, but compare prices and buy online. They also want the right level of solution – not always the Rolls Royce or expert one. The latter is particularly pertinent in areas of technology where they can see an ever changing future in which today’s technology will be superseded quickly and where tomorrow’s solution is likely to be quicker, cheaper and more flexible. Whilst none of these trends is new of itself, the depth to which they combine in buyers who are translating their consumer experience to work is definitely new. But lets not forget they also want and need to know what to do.

So perhaps I’m looking at this the wrong way round – perhaps the need is not so much for experts as expertise – expertise which simply comes in a wider and wider range of formats, from the friend who can mend your leaky tap to the app that helps you sleep. From the antiques expert who can tell the fake from the authentic to the algorithm making decisions for you – we simply have more expertise than ever available to us. Now all we need is someone to tell us which is the best one to use . .

Crafts and craftsmanship

  Last weekend I bought on impulse a beautiful hand embroidered quilt from Sophie Pattinson at the Stansted Garden Show – one of my favourite weekends of the year. Sophie clearly has many motives for what she does but one of them is the development of the craft skills of embroidery. Now craft is alive and well – Etsy is testament to that – but what about craftsmanship? The distinction to me is that crafts are about the production of product (or possibly a service) whereas craftsmanship is the development of the skills to do that – that’s a personal definition so please feel free to argue!
So why am I worrying about the distinction? Well it’s this debate – triggered by this research paper from the Oxford Martin School. There has been a lot of interest and discussion on employment more widely (about which more in a later post I suspect) but the issue of how technology impacts craftsmanship has not featured widely. And yet – much of the luxury market has traditionally depended on craftsmanship – couture, automotive (think Rolls Royce), Swiss watches . . . . it is a long list. And there is the fascinating question of whether new methods of manufacture, especially 3D printing require the development of craftsmanship to take the technique to its full potential . . . before we get to the intriguing question of whether intelligent systems are capable of craftsmanship without human intervention.
Demand for the luxury market and craft products remains high but I am interested in the supply side. Do tech literate Millennials aspire to develop craftsmanship in old skills? When the present generation of craftsman retire will their skills die with them? Or will those skills be replaced by technology solutions in some form? And where does all of this overlap with design (for which technology is already huge)? I thought this was all a cerebral debate in my head, until I heard of a pre-school group running plasticine workshops for their new joiners – toddlers who had spent much time swiping on iPads and phones but who were failing to develop the necessary motor muscles in their hands because they were not gripping and pulling. I then realised that to date at least, making stuff has been an integral need for all of us – even if we don’t all become craftsmen.
The design question is what made me think about 3D printing and the wider Maker revolution. Clearly home made is not only a real possibility for many but an increasing reality. But is that the same as craftsmanship? Is the connectivity of the internet and the sharing of experiences and design today’s replacement for apprenticeships and long mentoring? Will immediate real-time discussion replace patient tutoring? Craftsmanship after all is not always about individualism but about expertise and quality coupled with the innate expert ability to overcome problems along the way – the wood that doesn’t quite do what you need it to, the old watch that needs repairing, the fabric which doesn’t drape quite right. Does this 3D printed fabric replace that need?
And what of intelligent manufacturing? What of the armies of Baxters and the equivalents? Can they learn craftsmanship and the skills that go with it? And if they do, are they then craftsbots? From a different perspective, if robots can paint artistically, could they become craftsmen?
I have so many questions about this – some really philosophical, some much more practical. From my own perspective I was happy to pay a premium for my quilt – partly to support Sophie and her groups in Bangladesh but even more for the beautiful craftsmanship displayed. I suspect that if AI or technology supersedes some of the tasks involved there will still be a premium payable for exquisite work – the danger in my mind is that we simply don’t have the people around the train a new generation – we want the craft but may not have the craftsmanship.