Oh, to be an expert. Or not to be an expert.

I went to a talk about marketing1, heard a great story about business strategy2, and learned about The Trouble with Experts, a documentary3  that examines the current ‘Expert’ phenomena. As a big fan of the fundamental interconnectedness of things, the talk inspired me to ramble around the topic of experts while mixing in business strategy and other things.

We’re steeped in information: long posts, short posts, vlogs, interviews, testimonials, opinions – individual, journalistic, shared and trending-, spewing forth every second of every day and night. To add to the confusion, ironically by trying to clarify it, is a preponderance expert opinion about every news story. How does one get membership in this exclusive expert club, garnering the right to earning big bucks just by expressing an opinion?

I’d like to disagree and then agree with The Trouble with Experts on its analysis of various expert groups, including wine tasters, economists, and management consultants.

As told in The Trouble with Experts, studies have been done to test the ability of the wine tasters to distinguish disguised wines and economists to predict the economic future. The wine experts weren’t able to tell expensive from cheap wine when the bottles were switched, and the predictions of economists weren’t often right. In my opinion, although soundly executed, the studies didn’t do justice to the professionals. Wine tasters likely know many things about wine. Like most of us, they are human, and swayed by their expectations, in this case created by the label of a renowned vineyard on the bottle. Economists are trained to analyze and recognize economic trends, patterns that have occurred historically, which we all know are no guarantee of future performance.

The next group the documentary took to task was management consultants, which hit close enough to my home to make me uncomfortable. An interviewee suggested there is no data to suggest business strategists make good recommendations. Funny thing about business strategy: it often boils down to a simple recommendation (for example, produce original media content, or expand into a European market rather than a US one), which sounds like someone came up it in a moment’s thought.

Choosing a strategic direction is a prediction of sorts, but a prediction based on many facts, such as the economic environment, fluctuations in consumer demand, technological advances and competitive landscape. These are all real, quantifiable, and of critical importance for managing any business.

The presentation that inspired this post reminded me how real business strategy is, with a real life example: Most drug stores sold cigarettes a few decades ago, until legislation put a stop to it. That presented a certain large drug store chain with the challenge of deciding which of its remaining products to enhance to serve a regular stream of customers that weren’t looking to get their prescriptions filled. The solution, to highlight cosmetics, was genius. Understanding the full impact of taking away tobacco sales on the drugstore’s business required expertise. The focus on cosmetics was never guaranteed to work. But it apparently has. The expert who suggested it is a hero even though it was a prediction. But a prediction based on analysis of industry characteristics, consumer demand, what the competition offers, combined with knowing what the organization could do.

What’s realistic to expect of an expert? Very few humans can predict the future, regardless of their area of expertise. Those trained in a field will recognize patterns, flavours, or trends sooner than the general public, and are able to understand and explain events in their field. However, experts are often asked to gaze into the hazy future and conjure the outcome of current events.

Most of us who claim expertise do so because we understand an area through decades of work and study. Voicing an opinion about something, like the effectiveness of vaccines or the function of air filtration systems, does not require expertise. However, explaining how infectious disease is limited by vaccination or the parameters that govern air flow and particulate removal, does. Reading controlled studies about vaccine trials or the physics of airflow through ducts doesn’t provide a license to predict the future, but does provide a unique grasp on the subject matter.

The Trouble with Experts ends by exploring the most curious aspect of the Expert phenomena: training to become an expert. Modern experts can be created by a perverse version of natural selection. Popular media promotes the most personable, show-worthy individual to speak on a subject. Becoming this sort of expert requires only passion, poise and an unshakable attitude that you are right, about something, like life on Venus, the nutritional value of donuts, or the horse that will win the Kentucky Derby.

This is what we’ve come to. He or she who shouts loudest, with greatest emotion, is right. They may have a deep understanding of their field, or they many not. That isn’t the criteria. It’s sounding credible.

Let’s put the expert back in expertise. Being an expert means a person understands, not that they can predict the future. We’re all entitled to our opinions. The critical thing is to differentiate between expertise and opinion. All of us, listeners and pontificators alike, can make it better. It’s about promoting the truth. Not trending.

And on that note, here are a few sites where I’m experting:

1. As reviewer of business pitches for OCE and Ministry of Economic Development and Growth’s young entrepreneurs

2. As a mentor for entrepreneurs at The Community Innovation Lab

3. As an entrepreneur, in the Core21 community of entrepreneurs (in the video)

1This was part of a new series, called UP! Practical Sales Talks, from the BACD , aimed at inspiring local business people to do better business. If you’re in the neighbourhood, I’d highly recommend it.

2The presentation I attended, from Shawn Palmer, Director of Sales and Marketing, Classic Gourmet Coffee, hit most topics I teach in my business strategy cases, serving as a brilliant reminder of how real business strategy is. More about this later in the post.

3I want to call it a docu-pinion, to reflect a piece with the documentary style of investigative journalism and a conclusion that might be found in an opinion piece. I’m probably insulting someone here, but I think the point of the piece was the question of how experts are defined, which if applied to the documentary, could mean that many of the interviewees in the piece who provided their expertise could be questioned, and therefore the commentary provided was, at best, opinion. I’m slightly dizzy thinking about it.

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Abandoning Science Fiction. Embracing Science Fiction.

Traditionally, science fiction imagined the impacts of emerging technology decades and centuries into the future, suggesting fanciful, outrageous possibilities. These were generally ignored as figments of, well, science fiction.

No more. Lots of people are paying attention to science fiction. We can’t dismiss the potential of technology as surreal anymore. It’s real, as real as your online medical history, or app-controlled crockpot.

Science fiction has snuck into, and taken a starring role in, mainstream entertainment: Starwars, Game of Thrones, Dr. Who, and countless other movies and TV shows. Best books of 2016 include science fiction and fantasy titles. While some might debate the purity of this popular scifi, a heightened awareness of technology permeates popular culture, perhaps as a collective intuition of the urgency to understand what’s coming.

In classic titles like 1984 (information technology), Brave New World (human engineering), and Blade Runner (artificial intelligence), science fiction explored the frontiers of advancing technology. The time has past for the implications of emerging technologies be left to the philosophers in their ivory towers or visionaries in their chrome think tanks. Jaw-dropping new technology barrels towards us like a runaway locomotive, and threatens to overwhelm us like deer in the headlights.

My mission is to make science and technology accessible. In 2004, I took up writing scifi to help people understand science, both how it worked and its potential outcomes. By mid 2015, it seemed to me the field of scifi had undergone a tectonic shift. Currently popular stories seems less to hypothesize the impacts and ethics of emerging technologies than to explore human nature. All good, but not my fundamental driving force.

I took another path, focused on another passion – using business strategy to turn scientific developments into useful products for people1. Ironically, this is now a better place to achieve my goal to bring science to people. We are poised on the edge of many technological advances with the potential to change life as we know it, probably sometime next week, or year. Definitely now-ish.

At one of my recent business meetings, the light, closing banter considered whether bitcoin would become a solid currency. Bitcoin, or entirely digital currency, is an attractive concept, as a global, non-political, apparently secure2 and completely portable form of money. Many commentators expect it to disrupt banking as we know it. Not science fiction. Business.

I credit the book (from the business section of the bookstore) ‘Industries of the Future’ by Alec Ross3 with coalescing my thoughts about science fiction. In this book, the list of emerging technologies was no surprise and included self driving cars, the Internet of Things, big data and the associated privacy or lack thereof, genetic profiles, and cyberwarfare. Ross’ genius is coupling the astonishing capability of the technology with current uses and impacts.

Technology is becoming mainstream faster than it can become science fiction.

Today you can place your order as you walk towards your favourite coffee shop, pay for it before you open the door and whizz by the barista as you grab the cuppa with your name on it. Tomorrow, someone could hack your fridge to steal your identity or you might never find another job once your genetic profile has been uploaded into Monster.

No more is 19844 fiction. Fifty years ago, although horrified by the notion of being monitored constantly, we stood back and debated whether it would ever really happen. No more debate – the capacity exists. Now. Most of us are fortunate that such intel is not used against us. It’s only used to sell us things.

Issac Asimov wrote about robots5. While countless manufacturing jobs have been lost to automation, the real question is: how far it will go? Will robots replace teachers, lawyers, doctors, or spouses? This is about more than lost jobs, it’s about what it is to be human.

GATTACA6 (1997) was a movie about a young man who wanted to be an astronaut, but it wasn’t in his DNA, literally. The movie’s premise is that people’s occupations are determined by genetic profiling. In GATTACA, our hero fakes his genetic makeup to live his dream. Genetic profiling is close enough to reality that the Canadian government is working on genetic privacy legislation, while businesses that provide health insurance want to use genetic information to determine policy premiums.

Cory Doctorow, in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom7, wrote about a system called Whuffie. The basic concept was that a score like karma, based on how many good things you did and how many people liked you, followed you around and determined your fate. How different is this from celebrity influencers on social media, who might have a more pervasive impact on medical products that knowledgeable medical professionals?

Countless scifi stories show people being identified by their fingerprints or retinal scan. How close is this to reality? Ask Bionym, a Canadian company that authenticates identity by heartbeat8.

Artificial intelligence is coming. In the classic scifi tale, 2001 Space Odyssey,9 an evil computer took over a spaceship because a human tried to shut it down. Watson, IBM’s super computer, knows more about medical advances10 than any of our physicians possibly could, and it won on Jeopardy!11 Meanwhile, Google can predict pancreatic cancer more efficiently than medical tests12, and Twitter can divine which movies will be hits before the box office opens to sell the first ticket to a showing13.

Business brings us new technology, whether we are ready or not. Realizing the potential consequences can’t be left to science fiction. We need to understand all the ethical, secondary and broader environment effects in real time, when the technology is in its infancy or sooner. Simultaneously, science fiction has moved on to deal with some of the most challenging social issues this world currently faces.

To understand technology, I abandon science fiction for business, but I embrace science fiction for wisdom to understand people.

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1I consider this the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, and of course credit Douglas Adams with bestowing on me an understanding of the universe.

2The experts claim that digital currencies are unhackable, but that just sounds to me like a giant invitational to hackers.

4The book by George Orwell, written in 1949.

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Competitive Advantage or Competitive Advantage? Biology and Business.

As a scientist who specializes in business strategy, competitive advantage means two things to me: how to succeed in business and how biological species evolve. I’m enjoying the irony that the goal of capitalist pursuits might be mistaken for a fundamental, back-to-nature, biological process.

We value nature with an instinctive appreciation that it sustains us. But that isn’t quite right. All of earth’s creatures are part of a massively interwoven dynamic equilibrium. Birds eat fruit and poop out the seeds at a distant location, broadening the plant’s horizons. Carpenter ants chew up decaying wood, hastening it’s transition into compost allowing new vegetation can grow. Humans exhale carbon dioxide, feeding the growth of flowers, from which bees collect pollen and make honey – food for bears. I could go on about who eats who, excretes what, or creates habitats where. Nature isn’t there to support us, we are part of it.

Like capitalism, nature isn’t pretty all the time, as any feast by seagulls, crows or other carrion fowl devouring road kill demonstrates. Less attractive still are the squished rabbits, skunks and squirrels decomposing by the action of insects and bacteria. All natural, with the smell to prove it.

Natural selection, the survival of those within a species with a competitive advantage, is even less attractive. It leaves behind those less capable of dealing with changes in the environment. Just like business. If a business comes along with a better way of providing music to people (eg. iTunes), other forms of music delivery (tapes, records or CDs) die.

Competitive advantage in a business only works because it’s fulfilling needs. Sounds humanitarian, doesn’t it? Cars displaced horses and buggies was because they got people where they want to go, faster, and more comfortably. Lives were saved because the sick got faster medical care. A hundred years ago, Ford had a competitive advantage because they invented a way to make affordable, convenient transportation. Today, business models like Uber and Zipcar have a competitive advantage because they provide what people want (getting from here to there) faster and cheaper. Uber provides spontaneous, on-demand transportation. Zipcar replaces the need for car ownership, without taking away access to the car.

Successful businesses thrive because they sell something people want. Individuals in a species survive because they are better able to adapt to changes in the environment. A central premise in strategic management is that a business’s ability to sustain competitive advantage depends on how it adapts to changes in its environment. Similarly, the members of a species that survive, and repopulate the species, are those best able to adapt to the environment.

It’s harder to see examples of biological selection because they happen on a longer time frame than it takes Netflix to make Blockbuster’s video rental irrelevant.

In biology, we can observe a trait becoming more prevalent. For example, some humans, but not all1, are able to digest milk after toddlerhood, which relates to the cultivation of cows and production of milk, cheese and recently, ice cream2. It’s easy to imagine that thousands of years ago, people who were able to metabolize milk products would have a survival advantage in harsh times, as would their children. If we continue dairy farming, in a few millennia maybe all people will be able to digest milk as adults.

My favourite example of visible evolution and survival of the fittest is the moths3 whose dominant colour evolved from white-ish to grey-ish as the trees they rested on became soot-covered from the industrial revolution. Before industrialization, the dominant moth colour was light and there were few dark ones. Birds had a harder time spotting the light-coloured ones, so they were less likely to be eaten when they rested on trees with light-coloured trucks. As the trunks darkened, grey moths had the camouflage advantage, survived, and now represent the majority of the population.

The difference between evolving businesses and evolving species is active decision making. The phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ conjures up visions of death matches in Thunderdome4 where opponents rely on their smarts and resources to outwit their competition. This is kinda true in business. But not even slightly what happens in biology.

Strategic management dictates providing a superior product compared to competitors, whether it’s cheaper, has more features, safer, or more durable. Although it sounds contradictory, in biology, survival of the fittest tends to be an accidental thing. Businesses plan to outdo the competition, which Walmart appears to be doing in grocery retailing5. On the other hand, bacteria that are resistant to common antibiotics are becoming more prevalent. This isn’t because the bacteria have formed a consortium to determine defence tactics against humans. Those that aren’t resistant are killed off. It’s a simple accident of genetics. Those that have genes that confer drug resistance survive. They are the fittest in the environment that bacteria now inhabit.

Businesses can manoeuvre, change their strategy, hire new people, create different distribution and supply partnerships. Species, faced with a new force in their environment, must do the best with the genetics they have. Perhaps some day we will engineer ourselves in real time, becoming more business-like in our approach to natural selection. Would that be a bad thing, if we were fulfilling our needs?

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1http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/news/070401_lactose

2Ice cream also required the invention of the refridgeration, which caused the demise of the ice industry.

3for details, see Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peppered_moth_evolution

4in case my cultural references are a bit dated, Thunderdome was glorified in MadMax 3, where combatants did anything and everything to win against their opponents https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mad_Max_Beyond_Thunderdome

5http://www.cbc.ca/news/business/walmart-grocery-store-1.3717480

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