It’s refreshing to have someone launch a bucket of stones in the pond from time to time, and Vikram Mansharamani did just that when he declared (in a blog over at Harvard Business Review) that we’ve reached "the end of the expert/specialist era". He argues that specialists “spend too much time studying every detail of the bark of the trees”, thereby forgetting that underneath the bark there is a tree, and the tree itself is in the midst of a forest.
The new model is not the hedgehog, which knows only one thing intimately, but the fox, which knows a little of everything thanks to its wide range. Apparently, he's touched a nerve, because there's already 200+ comments on his blog post, and counting. Many of the commenters seem to agree with Mansharamani.
For me, the blog poses a bit of a dilemma. I’m always telling my clients that they should position themselves as experts in their chosen profession, that this will help them in their career and their business. Have I been wrong all this time? And how about myself? Should I stop blogging about PR, social media and marketing and include soccer, knitting and African antiques? Let’s see. I’ve tried to sum up Mansharamani’s three main arguments:
- Specialists are so involved in their specialism that they don’t see the bigger picture anymore, which is a handicap in a highly interconnected world. (He gives the example of the banking world before 2007, which didn’t see the dangers of repackaging and trading massive amounts of shaky debt among themselves.)
- Specialists do worse when trying to predict future outcomes. He bases this on the work of professor Tetlock, who conducted a study of “professional forecasters”. He found that specialists are basically too involved in their specialism. They adhere too much to the “group think” in their field. By being so conformist and ideological, they are unable to apply common sense to issues in their field.
- Specialists are bad for business and society, because they have a limited range of very specific skills. They are the people with hammers, seeing nails everywhere. When the nails run out, they need to be retrained.
Well, I can say that these “specialists” are not the experts I’m telling my clients they should aspire to become. For me, an expert is someone who:
- Follows the news in his field (study bark)
- Distills trends from this news (look at tree)
- Analyses trends and gives his opinion about them (think about relationship between bark, tree, forest)
- Engages with other experts, opinion makers and critical media voices within and outside his chosen profession (send smoke signals to other forests!)
An expert is someone who can zoom in on the bark, but who can just as fast zoom out to see the forest. Expertise is not about getting to know a small patch of the bark intimately, and defending it from external influences for the rest of your career - that's archeology.