What if what you know didn’t matter anymore? What if knowledge became a commodity? What if everyone could be an expert?
Far-fetched, you think? Well, in fact, the what if is no longer speculative; it is here already. Talk to people in such professional service industries as: private banking, auditing, consulting, even engineering, and you begin to hear concerns about the commoditization of professional knowledge. A consulting civil engineer [the field in which I was first educated, and still find so deliciously complex] admitted to me that much of what you need to know in that field is on line, and that their corporate clients were a new breed who didn’t so much want what he and his colleagues already knew (since that was easily available), as what they didn’t know. Increasingly, tax preparation is being automated, and even auditing is going the way of algorithmic review and big data “sweeps” instead of sampling. Artificial intelligence is writing content that you reading [not this!], and Jancis Robinson, the wine expert and writer, recently wrote that she has “gone from being a unique provider of information to having to fight for attention.” Increasingly, expertise, and the role of “the expert” is losing the respect that for years had earned it premiums in any market where uncertainty was present and complex knowledge valued. Along with it, we are shedding our reverence for “expert evaluation,” resigning our regard for our Michelin guides and casting our lot with the peer-generated TripAdvisors and Yelps of the world.
In fact, as if in a perfect storm, not only is the character of expertise changing, but at the same time, new client needs, and new clients, are emerging and the potential for new delivery of expertise content is also changing in fundamental ways. Firms are fearful of being vulnerable to an unknown [not uncertain] future; and at the same time, conditioned by living in an internet world, they expect instant knowledge responses at reasonable prices. Expertise providers are finding that the models that they have long-relied upon [e.g., the familiar five forces model] are losing some of their potency, as they are based upon assumed knowledge that is increasingly difficult to determine [What industry are we in? Who are our competitors? What are our core-competencies?]. Finally, in a world where advancement is being driven more by experimentation than by reliance upon experts, and where the need for advice has moved from episodic to continuous, the entire delivery model for expertise is also being reinvented, leaving an entire expert value-chain from classical university education, post-graduate professional certification, to continuous education, in disarray:
If expertise is over, or at least no longer commanding its traditional premium in the marketplace, and if the old ways of conveying expertise are also in upheaval, what then do experts have to offer? An answer might be found in David W. Maister et.al.’s trust equation for the professional service firm:
If trustworthiness is the coin of the realm for becoming a trusted business advisor, and if Maister and his colleagues are correct in describing the factors that determine trustworthiness, then it would appear that while Credibility is being commoditized via popular access to expertise and artificial intelligence, Reliability may actually be raised by the reduced variance associated with AI, but at the same time it becomes attribute which is presumably available to all, leaving Intimacy and Self-Orientation as the two remaining variables that are independent of algorithmic thinking and ubiquitous availability. They must be exactly what Richard Straub, President and founder of the Peter Drucker Society Europe, had in mind when we he observed:
Being human is consciously to bring judgment, intuition, creativity, empathy and values into play. In business, it is the domain of entrepreneurial thinking and innovation, of weighing decisions, of collaboration and trust – qualities that are utterly different from the machine logic of networked sensors and processors.
Not surprisingly, because they are so nuanced, these are also exactly the topics that are most difficult to master through a reliance upon a traditional business education. While most business schools offer coursework in entrepreneurship and innovation, there is considerable doubt as to what exactly these subjects mean and how best to convey such learning. Judgment and intuition are even more difficult to define, yet are probably even more important. When Straub suggests that “management is in need of a second curve that sets a new positive path away from the diminishing returns of the first” he is undoubtedly correct, but what might that second curve look like and how to prepare for it?
Innovative organizations require leaders who are role models for living innovatively. While not necessarily being the source of new ideas, these leaders of the future must be comfortable in participating in an organizational environment where everyone is responsible for innovation, where others know more, where experimentation is the key to learning, where inclusiveness is necessary to assure that no good idea goes overlooked and where risk-taking and even daring are the hallmarks of a successful strategy. In a world where expertise is dead, no longer will functional training alone be sufficient to rise to the top, or to take a lead-role. New, more intuitive and relationship-oriented skills will prevail. One is reminded of Apollo 13’s Project Manager, Gene Kranz, possibly the person in the room with the fewest formal educational credentials, yet the one irreplaceable person on the team, thanks to his ability to inspire, direct and maneuver a team of seriously smart people towards a success that their expertise had convinced them was unattainable. In addition, Leadership in the future will undoubtedly be more metaphorically digital, in that it will be: faster, more connected, more inclusive, more risky, but it will also be more intimate and caring as well. In looking at the development of leaders in a future where technical expertise is a commodity, we might well pay attention to Kevin Roberts, Executive Chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi, who suggests that all of this is vivid testimony to “the idea of business management as a liberal art.”
About the author:
Bill Fischer is Professor of Innovation Management at IMD. He is co-founder and director of IMD’s partnership program with MIT/Sloan: Driving Strategic Innovation.