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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