Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Problem With Experts

In an exchange with Sushil Mehrotra through I was reminded that there are two key challenges when leveraging subject matter experts (SME).
  1. As Sushil pointed out, you can learn to copy the behaviors and skills of a recognized expert, but you may not find a way to take those competencies to the next level. The goal should always be to move the standard distribution of your team to the right (increase the number of top performers and raise the top performance bar). So mimicry may help you get better quickly, but just as benchmarking only allows a company to become as good as a competitor, you must apply creativity to take that skill to the next level. The goal is always to create space and differentiate oneself from others.
  2. When you have a SME teach others the 'students' will learn the SME's best habits, but they will also likely learn some of the worst. Everyone falls into patterns of taking shortcuts to be more efficient and some of those may not be fully aligned with the desired way to achieve results (i.e. they may bend the rules a bit). More detrimentally, it is highly likely that a SME has a few bad habits and that those are not differentiated from the best ones by the students. I have come to prefer video as a behavior modeling tool for that exact reason. You can sterilize the model and eliminate the bad habits. These may be as innocuous as taking six steps to complete a task in Excel that should only take two or as grand as not using automation at all to complete a significant task.
So there is a place for subject matter experts in the training and development of others, but it is not a panacea or the most effective quick-fix in most situations. Create some structure and challenge the students to identify ways to take the skill(s) to the next level.

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