Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Problem of Expertise

I've been thinking recently about the place and value of specialist knowledge in The Salvation Army. It seems to me that sometimes it's difficult to find the right place for expertise in our structures. How can we better demonstrate the value of expertise and experience in particular subject areas? I think there are two areas of challenge to consider in relation to this question:

Firstly, our hierarchical organisation places inherent value upon officers and more specifically on officers with good generalist skills and the ability to adapt to new circumstances. Because officers move from place to place on a reasonably regular basis, and because each appointment has (sometimes dramatically) different expectations and demands, the 'best' officers are those that can do a bit of everything. It's much more useful to have wide rather than deep experience as an officer. The higher up you go, the more diverse responsibilities you have, the more your generalist, 'jack of all trades' experience assists you to fulfill your role. Officers who 'pigeon-hole' themselves into particular areas of interest or skill can end up restricting their scope of ministry (though sometimes this is their intention!). Yet, it seems to me that we often don't know what to do with the expertise that these officers have developed. Their knowledge and understanding is always filtered through the lens of the generalists, sometimes at multiple levels. What we do with the expertise of our employees, soldiers and volunteers presents an even greater challenge.

Secondly, it seems to me that we can be suprisingly democratic when it comes to the value of knowledge and education. I realise that I'm potentially putting myself under fire here as some kind of academic snob but I'm becoming increasingly aware of the times when all opinions on a matter are valued equally despite the fact that one may be based on a gut feeling, ignorance or prejudice and another may be based on years of study, experience and research. To be fully honest, depending on where these various opinions fit into our hierarchical structures they may not even be valued equally. I want to be clear about this - I don't think that education is the only way to understanding, nor does it necessarily always lead to the right answers. There are lots of smart people with little education and lots of highly educated people that seem to say and do plenty of dumb things (myself included at times). However, I can't help but wonder if we hold all opinions equally why anyone would bother pursuing any education at all? Surely there are benefits to delving deeply into subject matter for both the individual, their ministry and our movement as a whole?

How can we better use and value our subject matter experts?


Cameron said...

Further to this, the Army is very pragmatic and thus considers practitioners in far higher regard than theoreticians. Our heroes are all people who have done some pretty amazing things in ministry, and were probably too busy doing ministry to get any formal qualifications in their areas. I'm sure you work with plenty of people who might fall into that category.

Even formal qualifications have a strange sort of existence in the Army. On the one hand, if you have a Bachelor of Theology you're considered to be one of the elite. Yet there seems to be an extra effort made to make sure you realise you're no better than anyone else. Both of these reactions, considered in the context of the rest of our society, are rather bizarre.

Adam Couchman said...

Hey Jason...
Great post. I've been thinking about this alot since you raised this at the "Thought Matters" conference last week.
A couple of things, I think there needs to be a place for a "calling within the calling". I'd prefer to use different language for it (i.e. de-mystify it significantly), but this communicates the message. Specialisation needs to be valued and even encouraged. This runs counter to the appointment system that is in place, which is why I suggest it needs to be given the boot, or at the least modified. Officers should apply for roles in the same way that any other employee does. Why couldn't we advertise particular needs/roles within the Army and Officers can put their hand up. Have an application process, the works. Leave it as 3 year terms across the board, with the option for renewal. This would allow for both generalisation and specialisation.
The other point I'm becoming increasingly aware of is the way we ignore our expert employees who frequently have less experienced or less qualified Officers appointed "above" them, and this often leads to their expertise being ignored. As a manager myself, I'm very aware of the way that I (as an Officer) am often the one asked about something that an employee of mine is much more experienced in. Most times, I'm asked because I wear the correct coloured epaulettes.
I think the question at the end is a good one, and applies to Officers, Employees and Soldiers alike. I would also like to add, though, how do we encourage the actual creation and development of subject matter experts? More often than not, they emerge on their own, rather than through institutional forethought and planning.
Adam Couchman

JDK said...

Thanks for your comments Cameron and Adam. Some interesting thoughts indeed! It seems we all have some work to do...

Liam said...

Perhaps the biggest problem is we don't have any specialised leaders/managers?

But a bit more seriously. I think the biggest problem is our definition of officership. Either consciously (as I have heard our current TC state) or subconsciously officership is first and foremost seen as local congregational leadership. The Officer-priest is the dominant model. Those who are posted outside of that primary role are usually posted to either social postings (because they 'fit' there, or don't 'fit' in a corps setting) or a headquarters role (which is seen as necessary for our hierarchical organisation to function or having some form of political 'power').

Non Officer-priests are not valued in this model unless they have specialised skills not found in the officer-priest corps. The greatest 'theological' example of this is when the constitution of the High Court was changed from any soldier could be nominated for election to the position of General to them having to be an officer.

It seems that the only way non-Officer-priests are valued is if they have a very specialised talent that raises them somewhere near the prestige of an officer, say excellent musical ability valued at a territorial level.

Adam's suggestion of applying for roles is an interesting one. It has the potential of assisting to break down some aspects of the Officer-priest complex (ie. God, through the personnel department, has ordained you for service in this specific congregation).

Anonymous said...

Interesting conversation. It is a real dilemna as there are many talented people out in the army world who unless they jump up and down and say look at me look at me have their skills over looked. Not that any of us are wanting to be in the limelight, however when you work hard to acquire qualifications and have skills in an area it is very disappointing when you are not able to use them in any way. However, there is alot of work to be done in the correct deployment of staff and employees and the sharing of knowledge and skills. I for one will go and crawl back and hide in my little hole...