Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Thoughts about expertise

Among those killed in the crash of Continental 3407 in Buffalo were:
  • Beverly Eckert, the widow of Sean Rooney, who was killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Eckert was founder of Voices of September 11th, a victims advocacy group.
  • Alison Des Forges, 66, a human rights activist who documented the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
I did not recall ever hearing of either of these two remarkable women before they died. Discovering that two such remarkable women were included in the 49 people aboard the flight made me think about the remarkable richness of expertise in this country.

A knowledge society functions on expertise, but very few of the experts in our society are known to the general public. The fame goes to top politicians or corporate executives (who by necessity are generalists) and stars (of sports or entertainment). One of the problems we face as a society is being sure that authority in the sense of control goes to those who have authority in the sense of expertise. Another but lesser problem is to keep the best known people from appropriating too much income and wealth based on their fame. It does seem that the increasing inequality of income in this country reflects to some degree more income and wealth being appropriated by those with expertise as opposed to those without special expertise.

As to control, I note that in my days as a research engineer, I worked in organizations with "chief scientists" who worked with "managers". The manager would focus on administration, personnel, budget and similar issues; the chief scientist would focus on the substance of the research. Sharing control they achieved more than either alone could have achieved with unshared control of the organization.

In my days as a health planner, working at the regional level, I advised organizations that shared control among physicians, hospital administrators, public health officers and other experts. Clearly the optimal control of a modern hospital or of a network of health facilities requires more expertise than any one professional can master alone.

Modern research laboratories and hospitals are 20th century institutions. Older institutions generally have not evolved to share control among people with complementary expertise. Indeed, it seems to me that culture is conservative, and one of the aspects of culture that changes only slowly is the allocation of control within institutions within a culture.

Yet if we are to continue creating knowledge at increasing rates, and are to be able to utilize that knowledge most effectively to serve mankind, I think we will have to make institutional authority more based on expertise than on hierarchy.

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