The twists and turns of the life of thinking human can be such that we sometimes end up in situations of being the custodians of expertise or as being the agent for advancing the level of a domain knowledge expertise. As I end up in these situations time and again, I assume that many more people would encounter similar situations and my thinking-through-writing would have some utility to others.
Expertise is the skill and knowledge acquired by a person, the expert, in solving problem in a specific field. An expert knows the solutions to problems in the area of expertise far beyond what a layperson can. However, to come up with a solution, an expert may use technicians for assisting in his/her work. In the process, some technicians may develop expertise of their own and emerge as experts over time. Yet the impermanence of an expert makes us ask a question, “Can expertise be made to last longer than the expert?”
While dwelling in this question, my mind gets repeatedly fixated with the loss of shoe-making expertise in the 1970s, loss of weaving and metal-smith expertise in the 2000s, and loss of English and Math teachers in the 1990s, from a little village in Nepal where I was born. The first three were lost in face of cheaper alternatives brought by the market, and the third was due to human tendency to move for a better paying job or to a “better” place. However, I see only one thing at the root of this. The overall loss of expertise is the sum effect of the personal decisions of individuals.
Yet, when I witness the survival of the Swiss watch-making industry and Nepalese Thanka making industry in spite of all odds, I think that an expertise retained through a System might have a higher chance of survival than an expertise transferred from person to person. My observation is that a system could have the capacity and comparative advantage in giving permanence to an expertise in light of the fact that an expert is a temporary bearer of the expertise. However, an individual may often find it advantageous to give permanence to an expert in comparison to the expertise. Only exception to this is a situation where a personal cause warrants the expert to do otherwise. For example, there is often a natural urge in an individual to pass family expertise to his/her offspring, which works well in giving continuity to family run businesses. However, an average office employee would not have any burning desire to leave behind all the expertise upon his/her departure. Whereas the organization would want to retain the expertise even in the event that an expert departs.
Until the so called high-tech meltdown of the early 21st century, many large organizations used to have research and development departments, which collected the knowledge in the organization generated by effortful or accidental discoveries, general ideas, products, and development activities. The researchers then worked to advance theoretical debate over the ideas, discoveries, and the products, and translated the new knowledge into disciplines, thereby inculcating further innovation. I remember that when I entered into Nortel, the company was able to file for two patents from my first year of work. I credit the culture of innovation that existed in the company for that. But later I was moved on to endeavors of doing guided development and I was not able to produce much patent-worthy work even though my intellect is more mature and exposed to diverse knowledge over years. This was inevitable when the companies shifted their resources dedicated to the search of “what” into finding “how” for ideas already fixed at high places. The consequence was that the culture of “inquiry” experienced a fate of slow death and the systems of knowledge production went into the backburner. Companies increasingly started relying on “experts” to fix “problems” then on building “expertise”, which required development of systems. This worrisome trend seems to have no end in sight and it should be a matter of awakening to thoughtful observers, especially the policy makers of the organizations. However, effect of short-sighted decisions taken by the overly “brave” policy honks of the past and present are adversely affecting all level of managers and workers. Also, there are further implications to the managers of day-to-day activities not seen by the people at the high commands.
The first issue a day-to-day manager faces is the depletion of expertise. Lean organizations continuously worry about fat build-up. In the process, they create a fear of fat and drain away expertise from the organizations. An expert drifts in search of extra dough because he is fearful of the impermanence of everything. Although an expert of one particular product or service may not necessarily be an expert of another, it does not stop the drift. It is so much beyond the scope of a manager but he/she is there to helplessly protect the organization.
The second issue a manager faces is the effect of “expertism” born due to the death of the formal system of preserving expertise in the “lean organization.” Because all fat had to be cut, there existed no room for producers and distributors of knowledge as they do not bring any revenue but eat away the vital nutrients of the organization – precious dollars and the brightest minds that could otherwise be used in direct production. In absence of a formal mechanism for production and distribution of knowledge, there could be no formal mechanism for inquiry and debate. This gave rise to pseudo–experts who have partial knowledge of the system acquired purely due to exposure to the product but never tested through formal knowledge. This led to expertism, which is a state of mind where a pseudo-expert attempts to take the role of an expert in a hope that his technicians will solve the problem for him. But it is rarely that a technician can replace an expert. As failures become inevitable, all blame would then be transferred to the technicians for incompetence. It takes time for the organization to recognize the problem but when it is recognized, it is often too late. The organization is dependent on the expert, and not on the formally developed expertise and mechanism to transfer the knowledge to an average person. This situation hurts the organization but not the expert. The organization experiences erosion. Formal process of building and retaining expertise dies. The organization becomes increasingly dependent on the market for the supply of expertise but, due to trade secrecy and other reasons, the market cannot actually produce real experts without latching onto the organization itself. This creates a never winning situation for the organization and makes the lives of managers ever more so difficult.
The third issue a day-to-day manager faces is erosion of trust in a lean organization. Because many competing roles are built in for a single individual, workplaces have been becoming increasingly complex and stressful. While multi-tasking and multi–role–playing, one or another task can fall apart rather easily. But team members may try to find all solutions in persons and personalize the successes and failures. In such a situation, the previously developed trust and harmony may break. And, by the time a manager knows about the problem, the trust between the expert and his subordinates may be already broken. Because an average human requires a long time for forgiving, a manager’s efforts in mending such relationship bears hardly any fruit in the short run. The expert and the subordinates in an irritant relationship would try to amplify even the smallest error of one another and be not helpful. And, apparently it is possible for the relationships to completely degenerate and be totally crippling to the point of no return.
The fourth issue a manager faces is the issue of self-control in the team-members. It is generally expected that, when a patient lands in a clinic, the physician (expert) remains in the overall control of the problem and his technicians keep on playing the role of assistants till the resolution is found. However, if situation becomes too emotional and the physician says that I cannot continue the operation midway through the surgery, and throws his technicians to take up his role, the patient is not going to fare well. And, if it happened that the patient is a product or service of an organization, it could be the most devastating blow to the organization.
It is my hope that someday we will once again take the path of inquiry, which once brought us into a state of continual improvements and sustained progress that we saw before the turn of the century. However, if we wait for long, the history may belong to someone else who embraces inquiry and may slip away from us who are trying to be too lean without realizing that there may be winter someday. Because so much damage has already been done by the cost-cutting measures of late, organizations have to find novel ways for retaining expertise in the future. I would outline a few suggestions here.
Reform retirement policies such that instead of cutting all relationship to a retiring employee at the 65th birthday, reduce the number of hours and salary scale of those people as their age advances but let them come and contribute to the company as long as they would like to. It would be my hope that we start reducing the number of working hours of individuals in a sliding scale starting from age 55, not the current 65, and coming to zero at the age of 80 but the door of the organization to never be closed to the person. Let the extra hours freed by the sliding scale be spent by the employees in the company itself in socialization, fun, and cross-pollination of ideas if so desired by the involved people. The knowledge thus developed may in-turn be passed onto younger people in the organization. Do not force your older people to be the consultants of your competitors and vehicle for taking your dirty laundry around. Also, do not let your people die of boredom in front of a television set.
Even though organizations will continue outsourcing for a foreseeable future, it is imperative that they quickly identify their core competencies and start building fat around those areas so that they will be able protect their edges in all difficult circumstances. They must redevelop the system of inquiry by re-instating the research and development department in areas of competencies, and produce and distribute the knowledge formally through such department. This will ensure that the organization could hire average people from the market and get the work done from them. If everyone builds business models with a hope to hire “the best only“, the models themselves will crash someday. Majority of organizations that do not understand this fact will lose everything to those competitors who understand this fact.
Organizations must assign the work in writing with elaborated requirement specifications when outsourcing and handing over the tasks to work-groups. Let the requirement specifications be well documented and let there be room for errors and their mitigation. If all outsourcing and work assignments across the group that lack proper specifications and measurement parameters were to be stopped, it will force the people in the organization to do better inquiry and develop better expertise. It will also help separate experts from the pseudo-experts.
Organizations must have a formal mechanism for archiving and retrieving knowledge. Not only all the knowledge relevant to today but that of the past and the future should be made available to those who require. This endeavor could be strongly linked with the research and development.
Organizations may develop mechanisms to trade work items between the work-groups to maximize the overall output. It may develop formal mechanisms to make such shuffling transparent and documentable. Verbal and informal trades will not take an organization to a desired destination.
Organizations must have ability to backup, recover, and version control all their activities. Those activities which are considered as off-normal and justified as suitable candidates for ad-hoc changes are likely to encounter problem in the long run. When they encounter problems, there will be no mechanism to track the last good version of the work.
Organizations may not let all the tasks be done by consultants such that the organization gradually loses the expertise in the area and become subservient to the consultants. However, it is fine to do that if the area is overly familiar and the organization do not gain extra competitive advantage in maintaining its own expertise.
In summary, organizations must wake up from product madness and start building systems that continually advance knowledge, product, and innovation in iterative cycles. Going in serial binges from knowledge to product to innovation in the absence of balance will not take the organizations to a position warranted by their true potential. And, I hope that smart organizations will stop today’s madness for leanness and rather focus on long term wellbeing of the organization by unleashing the culture of inquiry, innovation, and superior-knowledge.