Extinction of the Expert

How the knowledge economy is changing the innovation game.

Photograph by Muriel Miralles de Sawicki

The age of the expert is over. Information is flowing at such an everyone, everywhere, everything, all-the-time pace that participation in the knowledge economy is no longer optional, or a value-add. It’s compulsory. And it offers an identity crisis for those individuals and companies who call themselves experts, leaders, innovators, and problem solvers.

In the knowledge economy, you can’t achieve expert or lead status just by having a compelling idea, a creative design, or a body of experience to call upon, no matter what field you work in. Unfettered access to information means an expected participation in a larger number of domain verticals. Expectations for the quality of the idea are higher.

But while individual participation and production across domains increases, the bandwidth of the individual to validate his or her ideas shrinks. Your idea or topic will always have a germ somewhere else, whether you know it or not. Audiences are smarter, more skeptical, and more judgmental. Facts can be checked and disproved easily, and audiences can crowdsource a verdict quickly and summarily.

Innovation is a neutral term: it simply means “new.” But new isn’t enough when the crowd can do better. Today, the question of innovation and achieving it through cross-disciplinary collaboration and knowledge sharing is well beyond deep expertise or broad horizons. We’re beyond the lateral and the longitudinal, beyond the specialist or the generalist. We’re also coming to understand that the crowdsourced collective isn’t the whole answer. To paraphrase Malcolm Gladwell: You can’t crowdsource Shakespeare. Convergence hasn’t delivered on its promise because it isn’t the solution: It’s only one step within a future-forward knowledge framework. Innovation is achieved after disciplines come together, when their organizing principles, themes, and guiding premises overlay in transparency and there is a resulting exponential accretion of knowledge and possibility.

The awakening to the power of our collective intelligence can be seen in the business media and the semantic gymnastics swirling around convergence, divergence, design thinking, innovation, and other catchwords. Convergence came on the scene when everyone figured out that there were other domains and verticals that needed to be considered in the practice of design; that there were other practices that could inform your own, other specialties to benefit from, shoulders of giants to be stood upon. Now, being “convergent” is like being multinational but not global. You’re on the big stage, but you haven’t achieved the statesmanship that comes with the full essence of understanding.

This awakening is likely a good thing, but it also means that the idea of a powerful collective intelligence is in its nascency. People don’t quite get it yet. Everyone is straining for the holy grail of innovation, but if everything is new, then change just becomes the norm and everything becomes disposable instead of special. Nothing is truly innovative in the finest meaning of the word.

Going forward, convergence must not be about the objects of design but about the process of creativity. Because of that it’s becoming harder to imagine a holistic, expert stance for an individual. True expertise and innovation increasingly depend on creativity and problem solving by community, or what we might call a “society of design.”

Does this mean experts, creative directors, and gurus are going extinct? It does if they try to hold on to the fading notion that they’re the central repository of expert knowledge. The fact is, encyclopedic knowledge is in the crowd, and specialized knowledge will rest with the individual. The leaders and experts of tomorrow have to be either polymaths (deep multi-domain experts), curators (those who collect or collate different domains), polyglots (the overlay and meaning makers), or all three.

Even then, effective leadership won’t come simply by collecting numerous disciplines under one roof. Nor will it come by buying a company for the purpose of associating oneself with expertise. True leaders and experts will have to support distributed knowledge networks by attracting polymaths, polyglots, and curators into their workforce, and by pursuing partnerships or collaborative consultancies externally. Leadership, expertise, and innovation will come from those who rise up to facilitate and speak the lingua franca of all domains.