The Bar for Being an Expert

Management consulting is an industry with funny quirks.  One of them is that you can do one project in an area and be considered an “expert.”  My first consulting job was at a small boutique firm, and one of my early projects involved doing a discounted cash flow model.  I had learned some Excel in college, and I used a couple of old projects lying around as examples.  After I had done the model, I was suddenly the go-to person in the firm for financial modeling.  I thought this was due to being at such a small company, but the same thing has happened at various firms in areas including healthcare, pricing, personalization technology, and packaging.  This phenomenon is why no consultant wants their first project to be in a dull industry.

This trend is also in direct conflict with the concept popularized by Malcolm Gladwell that it takes 10,000 hours of mindful practice to be a world-class performer in any area.  Bill Gates spent those hours programming in high school, and violin virtuosos spend that much time playing before becoming recognized as first-class.  Unfortunately, this principle has been shortened in popular usage to “it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert,” which I don’t believe is true.  This version prevents people from realizing how quickly they can increase their perceived value.  Depending on the context, you could become an “expert” in your organization in a few weeks or months.

What Gets Recognized As Expertise?

So the upshot is that people set the bar for themselves a little too high when they think of expertise as a grueling 5 or 10 year endeavor.  That’s probably true for becoming world-class, but I prefer to think of expertise as being recognized for a scarce and valuable competency.

Scarce:  If everyone in your group can do a task well, it’s just table stakes.  Those skills are still important to learn, but they won’t help you stand out.  Pick something that other people are bad at, relatively speaking.  It could even be something the company does every day.  I’ve seen consultants gain recognition as experts in project planning for more systematic and effective ways to do it, despite the ubiquity of project management in consulting.  Likewise, a marketer could develop expertise in effective competitive intelligence or customer needs analysis, common but not always well executed tasks.  The key concept here is information asymmetry – you should be knowledgeable about something that your peers are not!

Valuable:  Becoming an expert in Call of Duty unfortunately won’t bring any rewards at work.  Neither will anything else that’s not important for the organization.  If you work at a software company, becoming an expert in healthcare probably won’t mean much… unless you’re about to develop a healthcare application.  What’s valuable is always changing.  New processes and technologies, from the web to Net Promoter Score, elevate people to expertise in droves.

There’s a market timing aspect to this, which is one of the main reasons so few people build expertise proactively.  “I could learn this now, but I’ll wait until I’m sure it’s valuable.”  By the time the need is obvious to everyone, it’s much harder to stand out.

Competency:  You have to be able to do the work autonomously.  Knowing the concepts or practices isn’t enough if you still need to rely on someone else.  That’s why hands-on experience is important.  Also, try to find outside resources for questions to avoid torpedoing the perception of competency once you’ve built it.

How to Build Expertise?

Read – The key is to pick in-depth resources like textbooks, trade journals, and manuals.  Business Week, the Harvard Business Review, and CIO magazine are good publications, but they’re too high-level to help you become an expert in much beyond shop talk.  External training is a good alternative if you’re less self-motivated, at a greater cost in money and often time.

Talk to people – Once you have a basic grounding in an area, you need to talk to a variety of people in the field to understand how practice differs from theory.  Most written sources gloss over tacit knowledge and implementation complexity – these are the areas to focus on in talking to people.  Resources like LinkedIn and alumni associations are invaluable for this purpose.  Come up with a list of questions as you do your reading, and go through those questions with multiple people.  Conferences can also be helpful, although the actual information density at events is often low because they’re intended as much to entertain as to educate.

Use it – Make sure you actually use the knowledge, whether at work or an outside project, perhaps through a site like eLance or oDesk.  At some point, you’ll have to convince someone that you’re really an expert, and if all you have to talk about is a book you read, it won’t be enough.  Once you have one or two real pieces of work under your belt, you’re off to the races.  This is one reason why consulting is such a good environment for building new competencies – new projects come up all the time.

Market it – Finally, you need to let people in your company (or your clients) know that you have the expertise.  Training presentations, conference talks (keep information asymmetry in mind!), blog posts, and informal conversations can be helpful.  Or consider volunteering to develop a marketing piece or talk to a client.

We live in a time when most information is no longer really scarce or expensive if you bother to look for it.  Expertise, in contrast, remains much rarer because most people aren’t willing to invest the time to acquire it.  It’s one of the most important investments you can make if you don’t want your career to consist of punching the clock.

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