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 . .