Saturday, December 06, 2014

Be careful of domain specific expertise

We have very specific expertise in very specific domains. It'll be extremely unwise to think that being an expert in one domain can naturally lead to expertise in other domains. 

For example, you're an economic professor teaching in a local university. Due to the nature of your work, you have to be somewhat of an expert in economics. But to think that your expertise in economics extend to areas like financial investments is delusional. It's just not the same. I can even postulate that real life economics is also different from academic economics. Being an expert in academic economics also doesn't guarantee that you're an expert in real life economics. It's that specific.

Case in point: Me. I was studying civil engineering back in NUS and had to do reservist during the school holidays. I must say I'm quite an expert in soil mechanics. There are numerous modules in soil engineering, and I never fail to get anything less than an A- in them. But I failed miserably when I was asked to hammer in a long iron picket in a dry soil. The soil is just too hard to push it through and several attempts at hammering it didn't really help (I must confess we didn't even have a hammer...guess what we did to hammer it?). Even if it goes in, there's not a lot of friction in the dry soil (it's more like sand) to hold the picket upright. Fortunately, there came along a course mate who is also in my platoon. He suggested pouring some water on the soil to increase the shear strength and then he proceeded to pour his whole water bottle onto the patch of sandy soil. It works damn well! The soil becomes less sandy, with a marked increment in the angle of phi, so the shear strength of the soil also increases. This allows the picket to maintain its upright position.

This episode must obviously had a huge impact on me, knowing that I still remembered it after all these years. Being an expert in soil mechanics on paper doesn't guarantee that you're an expert in soil mechanics in practice. Domain specific expertise is that specific.

A person who is a successful businessman doesn't mean he's good at investing. A mathematician specializing in probability doesn't mean he's good at estimating real life odds. A economics teacher doesn't mean he's good at interpreting global trends. A tutor who had taught for 10 yrs in various fields like maths and science doesn't mean he's good at finance. LOL

So the next time you see anyone claiming to be an expert:

1. Ignore his title. What associate director, what CEO..forget it, it's not important

2. Ignore his qualifications. Paper qualifications, hence academic, does not guarantee real life qualifications. Being an expert in mathematics on paper, doesn't mean that you're an expert in real life mathematics, but at least there's a theoretical background to fall back on. Being an expert in mathematics and thinking that you're an expert in technical analysis (for example) is a big fallacy you must not fall into, or believe that others are capable of. Reminds me of Antony Robbins - the self motivation guru espousing wisdom on investments, lol

3. Ignore his years of experience. Unless you can show that the experience is close to the situation as possible. And you must be really really discerning. 

So in a world of smoke and mirrors, what gives? In my opinion, experience in the exact situation (or similar enough, but be discerning) is the best forecaster of expertise. If you've been hammering nails in metal sheets for 10 yrs, you're an expert at hammering nails in metals sheets. You might be some sort of expert in hammering nails in wooden planks, but it might be kind of far fetch to say you're an expert at working with metals. 

In my line, having 10 yrs of experience teaching good students is equivalent to less than 1 yr of experience teaching bad students. Yes, again, it's that specific LOL


Singapore Man of Leisure said...


I read this post with a big grin :)

During one of my reservist trainings, one driver had a hard time reversing his 3-tonner into a tight spot at a field camp.

After 3 tries, our exasperated reservist CSM took over and did it in one go to loud applause from all of us!

The hapless driver may have an "official" driver designation, but I guess he hardly drove a 3-tonner AFTER NS.

The CSM? He drives container trucks for in civilian life ;)

I can't agree more it's not titles, paper qualifications, or past glories.

It's about competence in the here and now :)

la papillion said...


Haha, classic case of 'vocation' (as assigned by army) vs vocation (practiced by you)! I've some people who are army nuts and can tell the type and model of planes and tanks just by the sound of it!

By trying to be an expert in something you're not can be very persuasive. Look at my kungfu cats, it's also worded as such to attract attention. All my certs meant that I can study, doesn't mean that I can teach haha

Anonymous said...

hi LP
thank you for your blog article.
I remember something from a book i read about logic or reasoning. The book mentioned about a real expert being able to explain complicated stuff in simple words to a layman. So if the 'expert' talk very chim, its not me layman fault but maybe he is not really expert and trying to smoke me.

What is your view on general management being good at managing specific domain experts, or rotating GMs to manage different ops. thanks!
Chew the Grok

pf said...

Ahhh...yes, that's the danger of being specific domain expert.

That's why an integrator of expertise would be much higher sought after.

la papillion said...

Hi Chew the Grok,

Haha, I think if a person claiming to be an expert cannot simplify their point until it can be understood by a layman, there's something fishy about it :) Not necessarily that he's a fluke, but he could like the aura of authority too much to shroud himself in technical jargon :)

I really have no views on them, since I've no experience managing others nor having being managed! Sorry!

la papillion said...

Hi pf,

We're all specific domain expert :) The danger comes when we extend what we're good at to things we thought we're good at :)