Beer Mats, HBR, and a book or two will make you an expert

After my TEDx Kent talk — a delightful romp though kipbot’s pissiness at how kids today don’t respect the amount of craft and expertise needed to do digital — someone recommended I read Rethinking Expertise, by Harry Collins and Robert Evans. Collins and Evans are sociologists at Cardiff University who specialize in the acquisition and social understanding of knowledge and expertise. The book is

meant to increase the chance that the process of coming to be called an expert will have more to do with the possession of real and substantive expertise … to treat it as something other than relational

It’s quite a good read, though the introduction, and the purpose is kind of sad: “First we need to work out what it means to know what you are talking about.” What a sad task to have to take on.

There is a lot in this book to blog about, and I haven’t finished reading it yet, but I had an aha! on the subway (the realization and insight kind, not the marketing kind). The book is based on a ‘periodic table of expertises’, which contains a spectrum of knowledge levels around which we build our expertise. The spectrum reads:

beer mat knowledge – little trivia fun facts that are technically right, but doesn’t get you beyond definitions
popular understanding – such as a pop science book that gives you enough to talk about it at parties, but not enough to answer questions
primary source knowledge – reading books in the field
interactional expertise – doing it
contributory expertise – originating ideas in the field, serving as part of the peer community that defines and propels it

The last two are the areas of true expertise – people who study a field by immersing themselves in the primary literature (often in university) and then do the field, where they gain deeper knowledge and understanding, eventually moving into a kind of mastery where they shape the field with their contributions. The book is focused on science, so the idea can be understood, by majoring in biology, going to grad school where you study more primary literature, but are in a lab and teaching (interactional), and then doing some research that can be published as a contribution to the field (the dissertation).

Anyway, I love the beer mat analogy, and it’s actually real — they found a beer mat for Babycham company that tells you what a hologram is (with exclamation points too!). But the real insight for me was the faultline between primary source and interactional expertise. How many times have we made ourselves conversant in (and considered ourselves capable of managing) a field after reading a couple books in the field? Without doing the work, without reading something by or talking to someone who actually has done the work to see what the difference between dynamic interactional and static written knowledge would be. The degree of immersion is important here. In his reportage and non-fiction writing, Martin Amis regularly refers to reading a couple yards of books to get a handle on the field (specifically he was talking about nuclear disarmament policy and Stalin research). This was a huge insight for me as a manager and as an observer of other managerial cultures.

The other piece I really liked was the distinction around popular literature on a field. Somewhere between beer mats and text books are popularizations — the Stephen Hawking pop science stuff. I used to make fun of the Business Week cover dynamic in the internet industry — the day something gets covered in BW, the client or your boss calls and says “OMG we need to have this!!!!” But now, looking at the broader spectrum of expertise — going from beer mats out to doing and originating — I’m wondering if things like our beloved HBR, the sacred text to many of us (including me), is actually popular or primary.

PS Jeff Parks, in his talk, “Being Human is not Quantifiable” has a funny riff about expertise. While looking at Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours quote, he gently mocks the notion of a social media expert arguing that this stuff hasn’t been around long enough for some to put 10,000 hours into it!

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