Submitted for publication by Email, February 19, 2009 © Robert Goatham & Calleam Consulting Ltd.
Published here April 2009.

Introduction | Projects From First Principles | Compounding the Challenge
Onion Rings | Experts and Expertise | Barriers to Developing Expertise | Conclusion

Experts and Expertise

In large part the antidote to mastering the complex domain in which decisions are made is "expertise". Expertise is a critical ingredient in any decision centric activity. Experts have the insight needed to be able to address the six great challenges listed in the previous section and because of their experience they are better equipped to navigate the complex domain within which project decisions are made.

Experts' prior experiences give them the situational awareness needed to be able to ask the right questions at the right time and the ability to identify optimal answers. Their depth of understanding reduces the level of uncertainty associated with the decisions they make and also helps them avoid making too many mistakes. Those advantages make experts more productive than others and that in turn can improve the overall project environment by helping to reduce the stress levels to which the team is exposed.

Of course everyone likes to think of himself or herself as an expert. Pick up a stack of resumes and you'll find the word used liberally. The problem is that as an industry the IT sector has generally poorly understood the nature of expertise, the processes by which it develops and how to recognize it when building a team. In most practical situations organizations simply measure expertise by years of experience.

However as those in the trenches are fully aware, the difference in capabilities between individuals can be significant. Studies on the subject often show a 10 to 1 variance between the most and least capable IT workers.[6][7] The net result is that organizations can at times end up with teams whose capabilities fall short of that required to ensure the success of the project. It is that gap which provides the tinder from which project failures occur.

In part the problem is structural to the industry. Unlike other professions that are "decision centric" and "expert" driven, such as medicine, law and engineering, the IT sector lacks a professional infrastructure that establishes and maintains levels of professional practice. In the legal and medical professions the barriers to entry are high and practitioners can be disbarred if their services fail to meet professional standards. In the IT sector the barriers to entry are low and there are no professional bodies with any form of real authority. Although various bodies do offer certification programs for IT professionals, the certifications in the IT sector are generally toothless and often mean little more than a person has memorized some material from a book.

Interestingly, other project environments in which the barriers to entry are low and there are no governance bodies suffer from similar problems as the IT industry. One example is the home renovation business. With the boom in the housing market that took place a few years ago there was a corresponding boom in the need for contractors to do renovations. Again there were no barriers to entry into the sector and no governing bodies to oversee professional practice. Although there are good renovation contractors out there, there are also many who lack the expertise to be doing what they claim they can do. As a result, complaints about failed renovation projects represent one of the most common complaints reported to the Better Business Bureau.[8]

So significant is this problem that here in Canada there is a highly successful television program called Holmes on Homes. In this program, an expert in home renovation visits the homes of people who have fallen victim to shoddy contractors and helps them fix up the problems. Given that the show is currently in its 7th season and runs on networks around the world, it seems that this is an issue that resonates with many people.

 Onion Rings    Onion Rings

6. Boehm, B., et al, Software Cost Estimation with Cocomo II, Addison Wesley, 2000
7. DeMarco, T., & T. Lister, Peopleware: Productive projects and teams, 2nd edition, Dorset House Publishing, 1999
8. Complaints Statistics, Better Business Bureau, 2008
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