What is an expert?

6 min readOct 31, 2018

I often see examples where people add characteristics to a map or use new definitions for one of the axis. There’s nothing wrong with this and I want to encourage people to explore and experiment. One recent effort by Manish has the axis as “Rookie to Expert” which leads to the question of what is an expert?

A map — and I have an entire creative commons book on this, if you want to learn more — is a map of capital. The nodes are stocks of capital and the lines are flows of capital. On the x-axis, I normally use the labels for activities — genesis, custom, product (+rental), commodity (+utility). But you can add not only activities but many other forms of capital including practices, data and knowledge onto the same map. We use different terms for each stage of evolution of these forms of capital and hence for reference I’ve included these in the table below.

All of these forms of capital have common characteristics as they evolve which is why we can put them all on the same map. These characteristics are captured in the “cheat sheet” below. After nearly a decade, I still find the cheat sheet to be a useful tool though to be honest, it’s embedded deep in my mind these days.

So what has this got to do with expertise?

Well, let us take a grossly simplified map of an imaginary healthcare system starting with the public. The public want to live a long age and have a healthy life. Alas, that invariably means some form of treatment. Gov provides this because it’s a vote winner but that requires tax which is used in budgets by the Health Service to provide treatment centres which offer the treatments. Alas, treatment isn’t a static thing. There is constant range of new treatments appearing on the market. At the same time, once remarkable treatments become routine, even dull. We draw this as a pipeline of evolving components. The square box (the connection to the pipeline) is simply considered an average of the pipeline itself. In this case, more treatments are fairly well defined than those that aren’t.

Ok, it’s not a perfect map but it’s a start. So, what do we mean by expertise? Well an expert could be someone who is experienced in a broad range of treatments. They would be a generalist or an expert in general practice.

But an expert could equally be someone who has specialised in a particular area e.g. the novel study of epigenetic cures or even appendicitis. This person would be a specialist

What is also important to understand is that every node on a map can in fact be itself a map. For example, if we expand out Appendicitis node into its own map (see below), there will be many components involved in its treatment. A specialist would have in-depth knowledge of each of those components.

Now, you might ask me why the nodes on this last map have no labels. Well, it’s because I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’ve just added some nodes and links as a way of saying — there will be components involved but I have no idea what they are. If you actually want a map for Appendicitis then you’ll need to talk to an expert on the subject and not an utter rookie, like me.

It’s worth noting, that the only people who can actually map a space are those with expertise in that space. In the same way, the only people who can draw you a map of London (even a crude one) are people who have either been to London (physically or virtually) or seen a map. In my most evil moments, usually in interviews, I get people to map a space so that I can judge whether they know what they’re talking about. If you can’t map it, you clearly don’t know it.

The beauty of maps is we can have many experts (both generalists and specialists), sharing and communicating with each other through the use of maps and hence improving them. They can also be from different fields. In our map, we’re going to hopefully have many experts including one on treatment centres and one on budgets.

This leads to the very best thing about maps. For a rookie like me, then a map is the fastest way I know of bringing me up to speed in a complex and complicated environment. It’s also the fastest way for me for discovering just how little I know. Real expertise, not people self declaring themselves as experts, usually involves years of hard work until you get to that point where you realise your own limits. Knowing what you don’t know.

So, when that consultant turns up and says that a Government policy for preventative healthcare is not only a vote winner (blue line) but it will save tax (red line) then I can get excited and mark it on my map. But I can also ask questions such as what is the connection between age and treatment (green line).

You see, preventative healthcare might make people live longer (age) but if there is correlation between age and the cost of treatment then longer lived people means my budget is going up and not down. Fortunately I’ll have experts in general practice and budgets that I can talk to.

There are also countermeasures I can take before embarking on some preventative healthcare policy. If the treatment is more expensive then I might want to increase the speed at which treatments industrialise. I could do this by accelerating and investing in R&D. I might also be able to ameliorate some of the cost by industrialising treatment centres.

The point of this being, even a rookie like me can quickly learn and ask relevant questions with experts through the aid of a map. Regardless of whether they’re specialists, generalists or even their field of study.

So does that get me closer to defining what an expert is? No, but then if I want to do that I probably need a map of expertise itself. Maybe that’s what Manish’s map is? I can’t tell, I am a rookie on the subject of experts. All I can really say is that situational awareness seems to matter. Know which bits of the map you understand and where you need to rely on others for help.

Originally published at blog.gardeviance.org on October 31, 2018.




I like ducks, they're fowl but not through choice. RT is not an endorsement but a sign that I find a particular subject worthy of challenge and discussion.