Does Expertise Matter? Should It?

One never knows when a post will get reactions. A recent one on “Disruption” seemed to inspire quite a few. Most were laudatory – one quite critical.

The essence of the criticism was that I demonstrated an arrogance in advocating that outside “consultant” experts sometimes know better than insiders what change is necessary and how to bring it about. Much of that reaction was his strong objection to a recent report from a consultant his organization had hired, one considered a well-respected “expert”. On the surface, from the information provided, it appears that the consultant gave insufficient attention to the implementation of his recommendations – but, who knows?

Figuring out what might have gone wrong with that specific experience is not our purpose here. Rather it has led me to consider the role of expertise.

This challenge to expertise comes at a time when expertise has been called into question in three other contexts.

Those who do evaluations and other kinds of assessments are familiar with the rule of three. If one finds that there is a clear consensus view of a program or a personnel review, but there is a single outlier, one typically dismisses that outlier position. If there is even a second outlying opinion, one typically doesn’t use it for making a judgment. But if one hears the same thing three times from three unrelated sources, even if they represent a minority opinion, one begins to look to see if there is something to consider.

As it happens, even before the above mentioned reader’s comments, there were three fully unconnected recent episodes which left me thinking about whether I have become a Luddite – or perhaps an elitist – when it comes to the idea of expertise. [To obfuscate identifiable individuals, I will try to give these three examples in as anonymous a way as possible.]

#1. At the top of their field or at the top of their game.

A mentorship program in the DC chapter of the National Speakers Association served to make a tremendous difference in my skills as a public speaker. Even though my career had always called for me to give public talks as a part of my job, the 6 months of that program transformed that into an asset for which people pay me. Indeed, speaking and lecture fees are a key component of my annual income. I will always be indebted to the NSA, and gladly maintain my national professional membership and involvement in its local NYC chapter.

Yet, even though I am indeed a professional speaker, that speaking is built around my professional expertise of philanthropy. In other words, my expertise is what makes what I have to say worthwhile, my speaking skill makes it worth paying for. However, I often meet people who come to meetings who say that they want to be a professional speaker. When asked “about what?” they respond, “I am still trying to figure that out.

I hope that you concur that there is a very, very slim chance that these folks will accomplish their stated goal. My guess is that they see a few highly paid, in-demand speakers and fantasize themselves in such roles. Maybe one of these folks will win the lottery too. But I doubt that they will ever make a living as a paid public presenter if they don’t have content they have mastered, and for which they are respected.

But perhaps I am wrong. Maybe expertise doesn’t matter. If conferences, associations, and others decide that someone is worth listening to, should it matter if their “field” considers them experts? If these folks develop speaking skills so that folks are willing to pay to hear their stories and messages, content expertise may simply be a diversion. Their goal, and the goals of those who employ them don’t require that they be at the top of their field, only that they are at the top of their game.

#2.  Maybe expertise matters less than marketability

At a recent meeting of an association of consultants in my field, I discussed with the leadership that it would be possible for the clients of these consultants to receive a discount at the NYU Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education. [This discount is only offered to members of associations which publicize the courses to their membership.] The leadership acknowledged that the clients of the association members might indeed find this useful.

I added that of course this discount would extend to the members of the association. The response surprised me. “Why”, they said, “would our members want to do that? After all, they are consultants; they already know all of this.” They simply dismissed that anyone who is an experienced and vetted consultant would need to learn more.

Wow. As an advisor to foundations and philanthropists, I am very aware of where my own expertise begins and ends. As an educator of funders of all sorts, I am even more aware of those limits. Could it be that I am the only philanthropy advisor who still wants and needs to continue to learn? Have others, many of whom do have extensive experience, really mastered all aspects of our very complex field? It makes me wonder whether we simply have a different understanding of expertise.

But maybe I am wrong. After all, these are all folks who have some evidence that clients have paid them and are willing to endorse them. Maybe they have other attributes worth paying for such as approachable style or easily implementable solutions, to mention two. Maybe it is ok not be continually learning and improving, only that they can do work which satisfies their clients. Maybe expertise matters less than marketability.

#3. Does satisfaction trump expertise?

There is a training program which recently hired a full-time coordinator. He has been in one of the fields of this program for some time, with rather specific background and experience. I have no idea if he is a star in his field since it is very different from my own. Recently, though, this program, knowing of my own skills as a public presenter [see #1 above] asked if I could recommend someone to do some public presentation training. Whatever my abilities as a speaker, I am surely not a speaker-trainer and was happy to recommend someone I consider to be a real expert. Much to my surprise, the above-mentioned coordinator arrogated this role to himself. Perhaps it was to save money, or perhaps he believes that he is competent. I don’t know. But I do know that he is not an expert and has no track record in this area. I was a bit stunned. It left me scratching my head. As you may gather, if someone with real proven expertise is available, I would always choose that person over one without that proven competence.

But maybe I am wrong. Should it matter? If people are willing to sign up and pay for such training, and they end up satisfied [yet to be determined], should it have mattered whether the person offering the training was a recognized expert? Does satisfaction trump expertise?

Expertise is not the same as excellence. The question is: is expertise a precondition for excellence? Just because someone knows more about something than almost anyone else does not make them a good teacher, advisor, consultant, entrepreneur, or anything else practical. But it seems to me that the inverse also should be true. Just because someone is a good teacher, advisor, consultant, entrepreneur does not mean that they can or should teach, advise, consult, or create anything they feel like doing. It seems to me that there should be a correlation between the two.

Am I wrong?

Richard Marker teaches and advises funders from around the world through both the NYU Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education and the Wise Philanthropy Institute, both of which he founded. His blog can be found at Wise Philanthropy.