I watched a TV show a couple of days ago called ‘Koppen XL’. It’s basically a documentary, and each week they tackle a different subject. This week the subject was ‘Do experts really have the expertise they lead us to believe?’. I thought this was very interesting because we’re being bombarded by experts from all sides. Nutrition experts, marriage councilors, wine tasters, management consultant and HR experts.
The funny thing that came forward in the documentary is that most experts are quacks and they know nearly nothing about their chosen subject. Furthermore, these so-called experts say things that are contradictory. For example, the one nutrition expert says that you need a healthy, large breakfast while the other one says that you should only eat a piece of fruit. And there are tons more of these ‘experts’ with other theories. Or wine taster who can’t taste the difference between red wine and white wine (with a drop of coloring fluid to make it look like red wine).
It’s the same in the human resources field. Just think about how many books there are about best practices, for example ‘in search of excellence’ written by Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman, Jr.. It’s one of the best-selling and most widely read business books ever.
Peters and Waterman found eight common themes which they argued were responsible for the success of the chosen corporations. The book devotes one chapter to each theme:
- A bias for action, active decision-making - ‘getting on with it’. Facilitate quick decision-making & problem solving tends to avoid bureaucratic control
- Close to the customer – learning from the people served by the business.
- Autonomy and entrepreneurship – fostering innovation and nurturing ‘champions’.
- Productivity through people- treating rank and file employees as a source of quality.
- Hands-on, value-driven – management philosophy that guides everyday practice – management showing its commitment.
- Stick to the knitting – stay with the business that you know.
- Simple form, lean staff – some of the best companies have minimal HQ staff.
- Simultaneous loose-tight properties – autonomy in shop-floor activities plus centralized values.
In essence, they try to formulate a best way to do something which they illustrate by giving examples of companies. Their choice of companies was very poor though (NCR, Wang Labs, Xerox) as they did not achieve the excellent results the book promised.
What I’m really trying to say here is that there’s no one perfect solution that works for every organisation and that these so-called experts are really just people who ‘pretend’ to have the end-all-be-all solution. That point was emphasized by one of my teachers in college, and he’s right. That’s why copy-pasting HR policies or any other policy won’t work, sure you can use the basic framework but what worked for one company won’t necessarily mean it will work for yours.
Now, let’s circle back to the experts. The reality is that we pay experts because of their image and because we can then say ‘but the expert told us that this was the way to go’. In essence, to lend credibility to our decisions and actions.
Don’t get me wrong though, there really are some experts but it’s important that even they make mistakes (hopefully less than the ‘rookies’) and are often insecure. For me, I have my suspicions when someone says something with absolute certainty. ‘You HAVE to do this, This IS the way to go’. A real expert, in my eyes, is someone who questions himself, studies his environment and doesn’t shower everyone in technical terms to display his ‘expertise’.
In essence, I think you can’t really be an expert in the social sciences such as HR or psychology (or even economics, which isn’t an exact science either like they teach you in school)
You can trust me on this, I am an expert in the field of … uh … Well, never mind.
Niels Van Hellemont