Saturday, November 11, 2017

Understanding and valuing expertise

I've been playing an online game for a few weeks now and I've become a bit addicted to it. It's one of those games where you start with almost nothing and build a city. If you learn along the way and stick with it, your city becomes stronger and stronger, you form alliances with other players and the alliance becomes stronger. In the virtual world in which this game exists, I'm probably a medium level player now. I'm just about to make level 15 in the game, which means nothing to you but felt unreachable to me a couple of weeks ago.

As I've been playing, I've been reflecting on a theory about expertise that has been bouncing around my head for a few years now. You see, when I started, I advanced very quickly through levels 1-5. The goals were simple and could be easily achieved. Each level relied on the foundations built in the previous one and became more complex and harder to advance each time. I used to be in awe of people who had reached level 10, now I have level 16 in my sights. I still have no idea of the challenges faced and skills needed for players at level 25 and higher.

I've seen this pattern before. As a musician, I remember the difficulty of learning those first few scales. Practicing was dull and repetitive but the only way to really build competence. You don't need to learn all the possible scales, modes and arpeggios right away. You learn a few and then make music from them. Then you learn a few more. If you switch to another instrument, the basics usually come with you and you pick up the earlier levels much more quickly. You don't immediately assume the same level of competence but you can get there faster if there are similarities. For instance, if they are both stringed instruments or both brass instruments with similar fingering patterns.

I know people who find the same thing with sports. Not so much me, but people with natural sporting ability. They start with some basic skills, build up some hand-eye coordination, for instance, and then seem to be able to more easily adapt these skills to other sports. In both sport and music, I've had the experience of playing with others who are much better than myself. In both cases, it improved my playing. The experience and expertise that my team mates brought to the activity challenged and helped me to be better myself. Unfortunately, none of the musical scales that I had learned made me a better basketball player. Some skills are non-transferable and you have to start all over again.

Much of this is happening in the same way in this online game. I can still remember the challenges and tricks for making it through levels 1 to 14. I can help newer players to find their way through these phases of the game. I can identify the kinds of questions and answers that apply to learners and the things that you can skip over for people who have been playing for a bit longer.

I can also teach almost anyone the first few chords on a guitar. But I can't tell you if Jimi Hendrix or Brian May is the better guitar player. I don't even know how you would begin to make such a comparison. My current level of competence tells me that they are both so far ahead of where I am, that there is no point even trying to make an assessment of their comparative skills and technique. You might prefer the music of one or the other, but that's an entirely different kind of judgement.

There was also a time when I would have rated myself in the top 5 guitarists in The Salvation Army in Victoria. That was back when there seemed to be only about 5 guitarists in The Salvation Army in Victoria. That never put me close to being in the top 100 players in the rest of the state. It's easy to be a big fish in a small pond. I'll also never make it into the top 100 brass players in The Salvation Army but those who do are probably more comparable with peers outside the organisation. We've invested in that expertise, not just for years but for generations. That has earned a rightful place on the world stage in that field.

So, what's the point of this incredibly long introduction and drawn out analogies? It seems to me that both expertise, and the authority that once came with it, are being challenged at the moment. A person with dubious success in the business world thinks that their experience is sufficient to run a large country. Everyone claims the right to their own opinion, regardless of the foundation, or lack of it, upon which that opinion is based.

In my own context, The Salvation Army, we've spent decades training officers to be generalists with as many transferable skills as possible, so that they can be used anywhere the organisation needs them. There has been little room, and little point, for the development of deep expertise. As the world around us has become more professionalised, we've outsourced much of that expertise and by doing so, lost the ability to understand, evaluate and make competent judgements about it. You see, you need a certain level of expertise to apply those functions. As in music, sports and even my online game, I can competently offer critique and advice to those at or below my level. In some areas, I may even stretch to do the same a level or two above but I know that I may be playing on dangerous ground when I do so.

I think we now face the problem of how to rebuild significant expertise again. If you have enough high and medium level players in a game, you've got a good structure to bring through new players. If you haven't invested in those foundations, then you have a longer and more difficult road ahead. As the Australia One project moves forward in bringing The Salvation Army's two territories together, there are new opportunities and new challenges regarding expertise and authority. I'll do what I can to contribute in those areas where I've built up some understanding and try to refrain from making non-transferable calls on areas in which I have no comparative expertise - and there's plenty of those!

It seems to me that this is a critical time to look beyond our own borders and try to learn from what's happening in the rest of the world. Expertise can't be faked - though many have tried. It only fools those who know even less than the one doing the faking. We might, therefore, need the humility to lean on and learn from better players for a while. That tests our tribal tendencies but as far as I can tell, it's the only way to get better.

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