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Consultants and Confused Apes

2009 September 20

Where do internet “experts” come from?  How can there be so many and how can they know so much?

The fast moving digital business disfavors incumbents.  Companies with long histories of success can be brushed aside with startling ease.  Legacy companies know this and want to do all that they can to achieve some kind of enlightenment, which inevitably leads them to “experts”.  Unfortunately, hiring expensive “experts” very rarely translates into digital success.

The core of the problem is that experts are people that know things and there are relatively few things that one can know about the digital business.  There is very little data, because most of the experiments haven’t been completed yet.  The jury is effectively still out.

Even if one has expertise, it won’t last long.  The situation is fluid and the facts are constantly changing.  Any formula for success would have many variables but few constants.

The Nobel Prize Winning Ape

The physicist Richard Feynman once compared himself to a confused ape who was trying mostly unsuccessfully to put two sticks together.  He said that most of the time he was unsuccessful, but every once in a while he could figure out how to get the sticks together and he could get a banana. (See video below.)

Feynman valued the process of discovery because he felt that it was the only way he could ever know anything.  He decried people he called “Cargo Cult Scientists” who asserted and evangelized knowledge that they really didn’t have.

He compared the process of discovery to watching a chess game without knowing the rules.  One can observe that a bishop always stays on the same color and not know why.  Later, the observation can be made that the bishop moves diagonally, which would confirm and improve the understanding of the first rule.

Eventually it might be observed that a bishop had changed colors, which would put the first rule in doubt until one discovered that pawns can be promoted and so on.  Information can be gained through observation but ultimate knowledge is elusive.  Our knowledge progresses slowly as we muddle through newly discovered evidence and try to figure out what it means.

Great Apes in History

Feynman was part of a long tradition of great thinkers who doubted what they knew, vigorously and with rigor. In the 17th century, Rene Descartes imagined that there could be an “evil deceiver” and so doubted everything he experienced.  Quite famously, the only thing he didn’t doubt was his existence, but only because the fact that he could doubt proved he must exist in some way.

Around the time of the American Revolution, Immanuel Kant caused quite a stir when he argued that it might be possible to know some very basic things (mostly mathematical theorems) without experiencing them (he called them synthetic a priori truths).   It was quite controversial then and still is now, despite the fact that he was borrowing somewhat from medieval Augustine who himself was borrowing from Plato of Ancient Greece.

Kant’s contemporary, David Hume, was skeptical. He argued that experience, although necessarily flawed, was the only path to knowing anything.  Therefore, uncertainty is something we are simply stuck with.  Most modern scholars seem to  agree with Hume (as do I).

20th Century Apes

Thought on knowledge and uncertainty permeated the 20th Century.  Ludwig Wittgenstein ended his seminal work, The Tractatus, with the admonition, “Whereof one cannot speak, Thereof one must remain silent.”

He held the belief so strongly that he once famously pulled a red hot poker out of a fireplace, shook it at Karl Popper and demanded that he supply an example of a moral rule (“not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers” Popper quipped).

Popper himself argued against “verifiability.”  His student, George Soros, makes billions by betting against people who are certain.  He believes that once a kernel of truth produces mass belief, the original truth disappears.  He says, “I’m only rich because I know when I’m wrong”

Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher, described technology itself as an ongoing process of uncovering rather than a process of building up.   His essay on the subject is now a classic.  Information may want to be free, but knowledge hides itself pretty well.

A Simple Question

For me, all of this begs a question:  If the greatest minds in the history of civilization not only doubted what they knew, but felt strongly that doubt was an essential part of the discovery process, then how can all of the “experts” be so certain?

The simple answer is that they can’t be.  Despite self serving rhetoric, there is a substantive difference between accountability and metrics, value and price, knowledge and supposition, sound advice and hogwash.

To be successful in the digital business one has to be constantly learning and adapting to a changing context.  For that, we need less “experts” and more confused apes.

– Greg

33 Responses
  1. September 21, 2009

    “Experts” still follow a 20th century map in which ‘absolute’ was dependable. But, as you point out, “…one has to be constantly learning and adapting to a changing context…” thus, one needs a fresh set of eyes and a molding mind that can create along changes in circumstances…

    The problem that I see is that the so called experts don’t have a peripheral view. They refuse to acknowledge or consider anyone that has a fresh approach…They don’t bet on the ‘autodidact person’ that keeps reinventing herself with the flow of NEW social thinking & technology… the one that is not constricted by the past.

    Best regards from Corn Island and, as usual, a pleasure reading you!

    g

    Greg Reply:

    Gertrude.

    Thanks, but do you have to rub in the “Corn Island” thing? It’s gettin’ COLD here in Kiev;-)

    -Greg

  2. September 21, 2009

    Hi Greg,
    This topic has been on my mind a lot of late as well. I think there are a few things happening here. The very nature of the internet allows anyone to claim anything. I also think that some egos tend to get pretty puffed up when, for instance, someone has collected thousands of followers on Twitter, or thousands of subscribers to their blog, or thousands of Facebook friends. Some people equate that mass following with leadership. “If that many people are following me, then I must be their leader and they must be looking to me as the expert.” Numbers are easy to build really, if that’s what you want to do. You can buy them or you can coax them by giving something away, or you can get other people with thousands of followers to get you in with their flock, and poof, they’ll start following you too. It is meaningless though, and a little disturbing to me really. I have never been a blind follower of experts, and I would never want anyone to blindly follow my perspective either. Expertise is not a finite thing. What creates learning, growth and innovation is constant questioning and looking at what other people are saying and doing and taking some of what they say and do and trying to add to it or take something away or change it or better yet, come up with something completely NEW . The internet is too young to have experts. It’s changing so fast and what works for one person may not work for another. I’ve recently unsubscribed to several “expert” blogs because I couldn’t stand the daily feeds of biggie sized egos in my inbox everyday (or multiple times a day). I am always suspicious of anyone who claims they are an expert or “thought leader”. I have a brain, I’ll lead my own thoughts, thank you very much!

    Greg Reply:

    Cheryl,

    Thanks! I forgot about thought leaders. hehe

    Whenever I hear the term I always get an image of a bunch of guys in suits sitting “Indian style,” with their shoes off, chanting in an ashram:-)

    I would LOVE to be a thought leader. It seems like so much fun. You can just think, great things come out and people follow you.

    Being a thought follower is hard work, because it entails reading, research and hard work. It makes you wonder why Einstein or Feynman or Dirac never considered or spoke of themselves as “thought leaders” but all very consciously followed others.

    – Greg

  3. September 21, 2009

    Quite an interesting philosophical journey; I’m surprised you neglected Werner Hisenberg and quantum physics, the most unknowable field with the most certified experts.

    Always a pleasure reading you, Greg. Start stockpiling coal for the winter!

    Greg Reply:

    Charles,

    Good point, but whenever you bring up Heisenberg it inevitably leads to that damned cat!

    – Greg

  4. September 21, 2009

    Now that’s a classic Tonto blog. One for the Archives.

  5. Olena permalink
    September 22, 2009

    Greg,
    Absolutely love thi post.
    As I wrote in my comment to one of your posts. every da I find a new “expert” , “guru” and “leader’ if you want in digital media.
    I have a list of books that I should read from these experts… they write books and become really proud of themselves.They promote each other and give webinars e.g. “how to get 1000 of followers on twitter in 2 days.” I have been to one of these webinars and was absolutely frustrated. In race for getting million of followers in 24 hours we forget about content, that’s why we are followed. As well as we really forget that digital media is so fast thing, while you rclaim yourself a guru and enjo the glory… it has already changed.. and you’re no guru anymore:-) Will tweet this post now. Hope the gurus will read it:-)

    Greg Reply:

    Olena.

    Thanks. Tweet away!

    – Greg

  6. September 22, 2009

    Finally… Someone is making sense.

    From where I come from, we only have consultants and experts. I hardly see anyone who is not and needs any help because they are all experts. Now, how do you recognise one. He speaks 300 words per minute with a phony American accent and has travelled to a country abroad on a project sponsored by the customer. He will use jargons which has no relevance to anything he says and would never get to the point. The most used word is SEO.

    The reason why he is now a consultant/expert is because he was fired from his last job and cant find a new one.

    Cheers
    Sam
    Bangalore.

    Greg Reply:

    Sam,

    Thanks. I can assure you that my american accent is genuine:-))

    – Greg

  7. September 22, 2009

    He, he – great post!

    The internet is actually a great leveller; everyone claims to be an expert but actually there are no real experts in digital business because like you say, it’s constantly changing so people need to be learning and adapting all the time.

    Cheers,
    Mark

    Greg Reply:

    Mark,

    Thanks. The only true knowledge lies in not knowing:-))

    – Greg

  8. Kay Lorraine permalink
    September 22, 2009

    Harsh words, Sam. True but harsh. You only hurt the one you love, or something like that….

    Greg, I was driven to this blog by Neicole Crepeau and I’m happy to be here. I like people who are able to put my thoughts into their own words (only with better verbage). I’m looking forward to reading more of your stuff.

    Aloha,

    Confused Ape in Hawaii (good bananas here)

    Greg Reply:

    Kay,

    Thank you!

    (But did you have to rub in the Hawaii thing. It’s COLD here in Kiev!)

    – Greg

  9. Randy Harrison permalink
    September 22, 2009

    We are living in an amazing time… disruptions abound and truly, we no longer know. Personally and as a marketing professor and consultant at my core, this is liberating, because it frees up the problem-solving self, which is really what solving business problems is all about anyway. I have always found, and even more so now, the less knowledge, the less preconceived notions, the better. Real and effective solutions are invariably the result of a creative process which at its heart requires a letting go, a surrender as an integral element. Of course this doesn’t fit the logical business way of thinking where structure and control, and the ever present search for repeatable processes, otherwise known as silver bullets are the norms. I remember see a job posting a few years back for a consultant with 5 years of .net experience, when of course .net had only been out for a few months! But that is what makes it interesting.

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks, Randy

    The Buddists call it the “don’t know mind.” but I prefer Wittgenstein’s example:

    “Prove to me that it is indeed your hand and I will grant you the rest!”

    Anyway, I know what you mean, having seen plenty of people with “over a decade of social marketing experience.” Yeah, right…. and I stormed the beaches at Normandy in 1992:-))

    – Greg

  10. September 22, 2009

    In the scheme of things, in the bigger picture outside our globe, no-body really knows anything. And the more we get to know, the more we realize we don’t know and the more ignorant we become. It’s a funny little world we make for oursleves.

    Cheers,
    Mark

    Greg Reply:

    Mark,

    Agree! Sometimes “strange” funny and sometimes “ha ha” funny, but usually pretty funny:-))

    – Greg

  11. September 22, 2009

    Randy,
    Your point really hit the core of how I approach business: “effective solutions are invariably the result of a creative process which at its heart requires a letting go, a surrender as an integral element.”
    Those analytical business types are always needing concrete data to back up all decision making. I am one of those creative business types, and that has at times, been a major point of contention between myself and others I have been involved with in business. Although I appreciate and take data into account, innovation and originality cannot and will not come from modeling after something that has already been done. In any place, product, social media, marketing…effective solutions come from innovation and innovation comes from a creative/intuitive process that is difficult to be defined or documented. You either have it or you don’t. It’s a left brain/right brain thing I guess.

    Greg Reply:

    Cheryl,

    Hey! I’m one of those analytic types!

    …But I do get your point. As another analytic type once told me: Data is an input, not an output.

    – Greg

  12. September 22, 2009

    Hi Greg

    Great insights on innovation, change and the nature of expertise, digital or otherwise. Wow – you are well read. The thought that ran through my mind upon reading your post was that there’s a big difference between knowledge and wisdom. Also – knowing the right answers does not always solve the problem. The confused ape unearths knowledge via wisdom and discovery. In our “advanced” culture we seem to be surrounded with knowledge, but we are not called upon to discover as much as our ancestors were. Our good fortune has had a numbing effect and increased our reliance on the advice of “experts”.

    Example: Every day I get into my automobile, start the engine and drive downtown giving no thought to the millions of inventions and innovations; discoveries that had to occur in order for me to have this convenience. Thinking of all the other technology and systems I use every day that I played no part in discovering is overwhelming. Not so our ancestors. Much of what they used each day was a product of discovery; necessary for their survival. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. So they learned to think in order to survive rather than rely on the expertise of others.

    We need more people who will take a step back and become thinkers, discoverers once again. Hopefully it doesnt take the collapse of our culture to bring us to a place of thinking for ourselves.

    Don F Perkins

    Simple Truths and Practical Insights – http://donfperkins.blogspot.com

    Greg Reply:

    Don,

    You make a good point. One of the big advantages of working abroad is that you get to re-examine your own assumptions. It’s immensely useful and cathartic.

    – Greg

  13. October 8, 2009

    Hi Greg
    I keep coming across your stuff on linked in and always enjoy it. I think you are spot on with this one. An industry full of snake oil salesmen!
    However . . . . . I am starting to suspect you may be a bit of a closet Luddite?

    Thanks for a thought provoking start to my morning.

    C

    Greg Reply:

    Clare,

    Shhhh! Close the door:-)))

    – Greg

  14. October 8, 2009

    Hi Greg. Like Clare I discovered you on LinkedIn. I’ve been thinking not so much about the number of experts out there as how does a true digital professional present themselves to absolute n00bs? Customers want to trust someone and it’s easier to trust someone with ‘expert’ in the title than ‘ape.’

    Michele Anderson (MediaChick) and I have had this conversation a lot. It’s a little ridiculous to call yourself a social media expert, but what do you call yourself?

    Not looking to you for an answer so much as throwing it out to the universe. If you’ve got a really great answer, however, then I’m all ears.

    Oh, and way to use Kant in an essay about digital marketing. Haven’t read Kant since college – time to go back and brush up. 🙂

    Greg Reply:

    Cory,

    I don’t suppose “Confused Ape” would fit the bill.

    I think that like anything else, you have to manage expectations well and ask good briefing questions. In my experience, what really impresses clients is your desire and ability to understand and care about their business. Who do they sell to? Where are they winning, losing, etc.?

    btw. My latest pet peeve is with ROI. Now that’s something that gets me steamed even more than “experts.” You can see it here:

    http://www.digitaltonto.com/2009/quest-for-digital-media-roi/

    – Greg

  15. Doug Bowker permalink
    October 24, 2009

    Great article – “consultants” and “experts” who convince customers that they know everything make life difficult for service providers who live in the everyday working world and have to deliver valid real world solutions to real world customers. Ultimately most of the experts only deliver jargon and generalities and the customers are no further ahead, other than knowing some jargon and generalities.

    In over 25 years in the B2B services space I have learned that in fact there are some basic truths, regardless of the buzzword, technology and “expert” flavor of the month.

    Number one is that businesses – and I guess individual consumers as well – need something that will actually work for them where they live and work and this requires a services provider to understand their specific requirements before they pitch jargon and some latest greatest technology. Unfortunately “experts” and purveyors of technology often neglect this; real solution providers leverage one to benefit the other.

    Number two is that a track record of successfully delivering solutions that work, preferably based on state-of-the-art tools and working knowledge of technology, is worth far more than skilled delivery of jargon and technology theory and so-called “thought leadership”.

    These “truths” never change!
    Doug Bowker

    Greg Reply:

    Doug,

    Good points. Thanks.

    – Greg

  16. October 30, 2009

    I think you’d enjoy “The Black Swan” by Nassim Taleb. A little self promoting but still worth the read. The smart ones are always curious, always questioning… but consultants having to put food on the table have to espouse some sense of knowing and authority. Some know more than others and competition roots that out. I remember a headline this week that blogging is an industry and really good ones make $120K+ per annum. I love academia but academia without applied practice seems irrelevant to me. I enjoyed your article, thanks for sharing.

    Greg Reply:

    Ron,

    Yes, I read it. Although his previous book “Fooled by Randomness” is a bit better. He kind of drolls on in “Black Swan.”

    – Greg

  17. October 31, 2009

    Greg,

    I woke up this morning feeling confused about my work with a new client. I am pondering about how to best serve them under complex circumstances–how to bring my experience and knowledge to their situation and what else do I need to learn in order to bring them my very best.

    Then you helped me redefine my self as a consultant. Confusion is a great platform for learning…and I am a primate. My only concern is that I don’t become self righteous in my newly realized status as a C.A. and begin looking down on all the experts and gurus. 🙂

    Edree

    Greg Reply:

    Nice:-)) I’m glad you found it helpful.

    – Greg

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