The Collapse of Expertise and Rise of Collaborative Sensemaking


If organizations are going to thrive in these turbulent times, they must surrender many longstanding assumptions about expertise and quickly start leveraging the power of collaborative knowledge. But for many organizations, this won’t be easy as most continue to believe in the kind of power-driven, top-down knowledge management strategies common to the machine age.

But given the disruptive challenges most businesses now face, collaboration is key and collaborative knowledge generation–or sensemaking–is essential for staying attuned to competitive the complex, ever-shifting landscape that defines our hyper-connected universe.

But there’s a glitch: paying frontline or mid-level staff to collaboratively make sense of complex problems and strategize solutions flies right in the face of traditional management thinking and the belief that the only valid source of knowledge is authoritative expertise. So clearly, new mindsets about authority, expertise, and the generation of strategic knowledge are needed.

Traditional Management: In Authoritative Knowledge We Trust

Anthropologist Brigitte Jordan has observed that “The power of authoritative knowledge is not that it is correct, but that it counts.” How true!

Jordan’s point hits home on several fronts: First, it speaks directly to management’s long-standing dependence upon the "cult of expertise" to justify its own authoritative management style. We see this in the assumption that, for most problems, there is only “one best way” to address it; and that one best way can only come from those who have specialized training and knowledge. This helps explain why authority is automatically bestowed upon the appointed “experts” who, because of their advanced know-how, are able to assess problems with greater accuracy than those who are dealing with them first-hand.

Jordan’s point also illustrates the false dichotomy organizations still foster between managers whose job it is to think and workers who are only there to do. This thinking/doing split can be traced to the very origins of professional management training. It was a key premise that Frederick Taylor, the founding father of modern management, used in his theory of scientific management. So it’s not surprising that, even today, we still hear managers lament "why can't these people just get the big picture!”

It's About Integration!

But we have to be careful to avoid the trap of just jumping to the other extreme and declaring that expertise has absolutely no value and needs to be banished. While collaborative sensemaking is crucial, it also needs to be integrated with the broader perspective and enduring insight afforded by more rigorous and tested thought. This means that for today's businesses, expertise remains a vital--but equal--component of a dynamic and evolving sensemaking landscape.

Suggestions For Introducing More Collaborative Strategies

So what can business leaders do to begin integrating sensemaking processes into their people's problem-solving toolkits?

Peter Morville has said that those in positions of authority should see themselves as decision-making architects. This implies using positional power smartly–not to control others, but instead to create cultures and contexts in which mutually-empowering decision-making processes become the norm.

Those looking to make a start may want to consider these suggestions:

  1. Look for pockets of resistance: If you know of departments or programs continually complaining that “management is out of touch”, they may be right! This may be a good place for managers to start practicing their listening skills and begin implementing more collaborative practices.
  2. Change your story: Stories are powerful tools for transformation; you may want to revise you talk about the power of expertise vs. workforce input. A more inclusive message valuing workers’ knowledge helps workers feel that it is safe to contribute their own thoughts and impressions.
  3. Utilize more collaborative platforms that promote for collaborative problem-solving: Venues will differ based on the organizations’ size and type of work. But still be sure to seek out ways to incorporate social technologies for unlocking collaborative potential.

A Deeper Awareness of Social

As we move deeper into the often-awkward shift from industrial heroism to social interdependence, organizations of all kinds must look closely at what it means to be “social”. Social is more than a buzzword, and it’s more than having a company Twitter account. At its center, a social mindset is about a more dynamic and integrative way of seeing the world.

For organizations committed to leveraging disruptive change, a collaborative mindset must be at the heart of their worldview. This includes how leadership approaches the role of authority and expert knowledge. Nothing better reflects this understanding than how those in authority–day in, day out–balance reliance upon expert knowledge and the process of collaborative sensemaking.

An earlier version of this piece was previously published on the blog 

David HolzmerComment