What makes an expert?

Johan Brown Grant, KMer at USPS OIG, asked an interesting question on twitter (he’s @KMbyDrGrant) earlier this month: “When does someone become an expert? At what point do they cross that threshold?“.

I often talk and write about the importance of enabling all employees to connect with experts inside their organisations, so that they can talk through really tricky problems and access complex and deep knowledge, but the “when” is a really interesting question. 

You know “an expert” when you see one, but trying to it break down and describe how “expertise” occurs within a business isn’t straightforward. Is it down to development of tacit knowledge (how would you measure that) or demonstrations of transferable explicit knowledge?

My (slightly humorous) answer to Johel referred to the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Experts are those who realise that there is so much to know about their field of expertise that they will never know enough in a whole lifetime of studying, practising and learning.

So why am I writing about this today?

It served as a useful reminder to me of some of the practical ways we can all make sure any experts’ database/White Pages we design actually works as an “expert finder”.


My main recommendation is always:

Don’t ask people to self-identify as expert and complete their own entries in an internal experts database/White Pages.

You will lose out on:

  1. Those who feel too busy for an administrative task.
  2. Those who know so much that they understand how truly un-knowable their field of expertise is (see the Dunning-Kruger effect).
  3. Those who lack confidence to put themselves forward, especially if they are junior and work within a strongly hierarchical organisation.
  4. Those who are very busy with their existing work at that moment and fear an avalanche of requests for help.

How can you identify expertise to ensure that only true and useful experts get a billing in your database?

I personally think that you need to establish three things:

  1. whether would-be experts have learnt more than most people in a field (both through academic/traditional and experiential learning);
  2. whether they have had opportunities to/been able to apply that knowledge; and
  3. whether they are able to convey/share that knowledge to others.


These are some of the questions I use, but obviously there will be lots of other ways to identify expertise.

  1. Have they published any peer-reviewed research articles in respected journals or textbooks by traditional publishers?
  2. Have they any postgraduate or specialist qualifications in the field (beyond the norm)?
  3. Have they published any articles in external journals or created any textbooks or handbooks?
  4. Have they been involved in/had success with any particularly tricky relevant projects or issues?
  5. Have they worked with, been mentored or been supervised by any recognised experts in that field?
  6. Have they run any successful training for clients or staff?
  7. Have they helped with the creation of any useful precedents or knowledge artefacts?
  8. Are they well networked within the organisation and someone people turn to informally for help with tricky questions?
  9. Do they perform well in 360 appraisals regarding teaching and knowledge-sharing?
  10. Are they recognised by Legal 500 or Chambers or an equivalent (recognising that there can be a big PR effect here)?
  11. Do clients give great feedback, ask for them personally, and/or trust them to help with a particular problem?
  12. Are they known by their clients and peers for being curious and up-to-date about a particular topic?


Three last thoughts:

Firstly, think about including two types of expert within your database – one for people to refer clients to and one for internal people to ask about their knotty problems/nightmare files. Your very junior staff will probably not wish to disturb senior people with their knowledge problems, but they need access to knowledgeable people.

Secondly, think about breaking down areas of expertise into smaller chunks and make sure you look beyond titles and look widely for your experts. A junior member of staff may have had particular experiences and the opportunity to become highly expert in a small field, whilst still quite junior and inexperienced in many others. He/she can be an expert despite formally being quite “junior”.

Lastly, don’t feel constrained in the design of your database. There is no reason why it needs to look like an old-fashioned Rolodex or address book. It could be a beautiful knowledge map or include video clips. As long as it is practical and works for the people who need it, be as creative as you wish. Make it not only easy to use, but also a delight to use.


What are your thoughts? How do you identify expertise in your organisation?

If you are interested in uncovering deep knowledge within your organisation, I run an afternoon workshop on the topic in London. To see all my training events, click here. And to find out more about what I do and how I could help you, click here.

And lastly don’t forget to follow the blog (button – top right) or sign up for the monthly summary here.


About knowledge4lawyers

I am a lawyer and a Knowledge Management expert. Through The Knowledge Business I help law firms improve their efficiency and profitability through knowledge services - consultancy, training and implementation help.
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2 Responses to What makes an expert?

  1. Pingback: Knowledge Loss – can you afford it? (first published on Legal Futures) - LAW CONSULTANCY NETWORK

  2. Pingback: Feeling confident? | Knowledge for Lawyers

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