This website covers knowledge management, personal effectiveness, theory of constraints, amongst other topics. Opinions expressed here are strictly those of the owner, Jack Vinson, and those of the commenters.

Clay Shirky on expertise (again)

Clay Shirky has written another piece on expertise that delves into some interesting nuances, Social Facts, Expertise, Citizendium, and Carr at Many-to-Many. 

I want to offer a less telegraphic account of the relationship between expertise, credentials, and authority than I did in Larry Sanger, Citizendium, and the Problem of Expertise, and then say why I think the cost of coordination in the age of social software favors Wikipedia over Citizendium, and over traditionally authoritative efforts such as Britannica.

I'm not so worried about the argument over Wikipedia vs. Encyclopedia as his discussion of what it means to be an expert in our world.

In the earlier piece, Shirky talked about experts being purely a "social fact" (see below) - that we consider them experts is a function of the social contracts we have with one another.  In this piece he clarifies and refines what he meant and what we do with expertise in society.

An expert is a combination of at least two things.  One: they have the training, education, experience, skill ... mastery of the subject in question.  This is not a social fact.  It can be demonstrated and shown, no matter what people think or say about that person.  They still may not be considered an expert, or not be "permitted" to exercise their skill, based on the other piece of the puzzle.  Two: they have been given some stamp of authority by the social system in which they work.  Shirky's example is the architect who has the training, done the apprenticeship and passed the relevant exams.  They are now a recognized, licensed architect -- an expert in architecture.  Shirky also highlights the cost of maintaining the licensing systems in our society: costs typically far outweighed by the benefits.

There is one other piece that Shirky adds to this discussion, as it is relevant to the discussion of wisdom-of-crowds expertise: authority.  Because that architect has been credentialled in our social system, she is able to approve drawings that can be used by builders and engineers to construct a building.  Uncredentialled architects do not have this authority.  There is a similar structure with doctors, professional engineers, lawyers and others.  But what is truly the difference?  Can't a disbarred lawyer delve into legal minutiae just as well as a lawyer in good standing?  It is that socially-constructed stamp of authority.  Think about how difficult it can be for doctors certified in one country to practice medicine in another.  In other disciplines the stamp of authority isn't quite so clear, authority is granted informally, or authority is claimed. 

So, how is it that we have experts?  And what does the social fact of their expert-ness provide back to society? 

And what does this mean for knowledge management systems, particularly those that focus on expertise location?  On the first pass, I don't see a big change in how expertise locator systems are conceived.  These systems get their information about experts either from the individuals, from their output (e-mails, documents), from HR information about them (schooling, credentials), or a combination.  Where this discussion could add something to the expertise locators is in circumstances where the credentials or authority of the expert are important.  One could imagine credentials and  authority being additional facets of a expertise location activity.

Note: A social fact is a fact that exists due to the structure and agreements in our society.  Different agreements make the social fact different, but the reality is still the same.  Here is my version of what Shirky uses as an example:  The office in which I sit is made of wood and plaster and has windows, a table, chairs and a computer.  It happens to be in a house with bedrooms, a kitchen, appliances, furniture, cats, etc.  The social fact of this house is that it belongs to me (and my wife).  That the books, furniture, food, and stuff in the house are mine is also a social fact.  If I sell the house, it is no longer mine.  I could still be sitting here.  Then I am a guest, a renter or a trespasser.

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