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The Power of Synthesis and the Problem with Experts

2010 June 21

How much do we need specialized experts for the information economy?

If history is any guide, probably not much.  It makes little sense for capable people to spend an entire career doing the same job when they would probably be much more effective if they gained experience in more than one area.

The irony of many great discoveries is that they really weren’t discoveries at all, at least not in the sense that Columbus discovered America.  In actuality, they came from people who took well established concepts and applied them to new domains.

Darwin and Natural Selection

Contrary to popular belief, the idea of evolution didn’t originate with Darwin, but was around for decades before he came along.  His accomplishment was to come up with a workable scheme by which it likely occurred.

His eureka moment came not through studying biology, but by reading the paper of an economist, Thomas Malthus, which showed that populations grow faster than the resources to sustain them.  It was then that Darwin realized that only those best adapted to their environment would survive and pass on their traits to offspring.

Darwin, it must be said, had unusual exposure to the enormous divesity of life on earth for a man living in his time (through his voyage on the Beagle). However, his big insight came not from immersing himself in his field, but when he crossed domains.

It was the connections that he uncovered more than the facts themselves that made his work so important.

Benoit Mandelbrot and Chaos

When Benoit Mandelbrot finished his doctorate, he took a job at IBM Laboratories where he found himself working on the problem of noise in communication lines.

To his great astonishment, the noise followed a similar mathematical rule that Vilfredo Pareto found with income distributions a half century before.  Later, he by chance came across data from financial markets that once again followed the same pattern.

It was these observations that formed the basis of chaos theory.  Later, Albert-László Barabási, who also had worked at IBM Laboratories, used the same principles to contribute to Network Theory.

Barabasi then went further by borrowing from physics.  He applied the same Bose-Einstein equation used to describe gases at very low temperatures to devise a new fitness model of networks which, as I explained in an earlier post, can help us understand Justin Bieber’s meteoric rise.

From static on a phone line to a 16 year-old pop star, the same principle applies. You just need to know it’s there and figure out how to use it to solve new problems.

Watson, Crick and the Discovery of DNA

In the early 1950′s, the most coveted scientific prize was the discovery of the structure of DNA.  The greatest scientists of the day, including the already legendary Linus Pauling, raced to decipher one of nature’s best kept secrets.

However, the glory went to two young, unknown scientists: James Watson and Francis Crick. Neither of them were famous, or even particularly accomplished, even for men of their relative youth.

What they did have was something no one else did; the information needed to get the job done.  The two were possibly the only people on earth with the biological expertise, x-ray defraction data and chemical model building approach needed to discover DNA’s structure.

All of the other people working on the problem, many perhaps more talented than Watson and Crick, were working feverishly on one aspect of the problem. Watson and Crick, truth be told, spent most of their time talking about others’ research rather than doing their own.

As with many big problems, the answer to the fundamental genetic question was a matter of putting all the information together rather than uncovering new facts.

Larry Page, Sergei Brin and Google

When Larry Page and Sergei Brin were graduate students at Stanford, search was not a hot area.  There were some search engines, such as AltaVista, but they were mostly considered a way to aggregate audience- certainly not a standalone business.  E-Commerce was where the action was and where most of the investment went.

Page and Brin’s big idea came not from web sites or investment bankers, but from academia.  A scientific paper’s importance is determined by how many other scientists cite it in their own work.  The same concept could work for web sites, they thought, and built Google around the same idea.

Of course they were right and their fairly simple algorithm blossomed into one of the world’s most profitable businesses.  Today, links, the web equivalent of academic cites, rule the web.

(And feel free to link here anytime you want).

The Problem with Specialized Experts

Unfortunately, as the world becomes more complex, the business world is increasingly specialized.    It is in vogue to talk about breaking down silos between departments, but it will always be just talk as long as functions remain separate.

The real problem lies not between people, but within people.  In marketing, we have people who specialize in planning, digital media, social media, TV buying, print buying, experiential marketing, etc.  Very few people are prepared to intergrate because so few have done more than one thing.

As technology changes, the problem is becoming more acute. Those who have toiled for decades using traditional  marketing channels are amazingly daft when it comes to new media, while digital specialists suffer from ignorance of decades of accumulated wisdom (and are often even more daft).

How long do the basic principles of each specialty really take to learn?  Certainly not a whole career.  Why is it that people are expected to continue in their function long after they’ve mastered it?  Wouldn’t they be better off applying their skills to different domains?

The question is especially pertinent in light of growing evidence that people often get worse with experience, at least in some aspects.  On the other hand, there are very good examples of people who used old skills to make contributions in new fields (i.e logician Kurt Gödel to physics, physicist Richard Feynman to biology and computers, etc.).

The Quiet Revolution

As John Steen recently pointed out in Tim Kastelle’s excellent innovation blog, there is growing evidence that innovation doesn’t correlate well with R&D investment.  Moreover, while many in the business world continue to pursue specialized research, a serious change is underfoot.  Best practices at many top institutions are increasingly interdisciplinary.

Some of the world’s most exciting research is happening now at the Sante Fe Institute, which was set up specifically for work across domains.  These days, most software is developed using the Agile method, which emphasizes cross-functional teams.  GE’s Crotonville training center incorporates group  training.

Increasingly, the ability to synthesize concepts across disciplines is much more valuable than domain knowledge, which is becoming commodity.  As information becomes more accessible, the trend is sure to continue.

The irony is that, in the information age, empirical data is being devalued.  What really matters is the ability to put the pieces together.

- Greg

16 Responses leave one →
  1. June 21, 2010

    Excellent article!!

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks for saying so, David.

    Have a great week!

    - Greg

    [Reply]

  2. Einat Adar permalink
    June 22, 2010

    Indeed, an excellent article.

    Just a reminder – it’s important to become an expert in one field at least before you begin interdisciplinary work.

    In academia today interdisciplinary is all the rage, but you see a clear distinctions between people who have a good grounding in one or two disciplines and those who take a little bit from many disciplines.

    BTW I usually say to clients that one advantage of working with me is that I work with many clients and get new ideas from the practices in different fields. It’s true, too.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Einat,

    It’s a point well taken and all of the innovators mentioned had achieved considerable expertise in one domain or another. What is interesting is that the domain in which they had specialized in early is not the one in which they made their mark (except for Godel and Feynman, who’s main contributions were in their own field and then went on to contribute to others).

    Research has shown that it takes about 10 years of hard work to become an expert in a field, which means that there is plenty of time in a career to explore multiple disciplines. (For instance, once one becomes an expert on yellow scarves, it might make sense to move on to red ones:-))

    Thanks for clarifying that point.

    - Greg

    [Reply]

  3. Robert Neuschul permalink
    June 22, 2010

    Greg

    Good article.
    I’ll agree with Einat – and extend his point; apart from any differences in personal psychology and mindset, I believe there’s also another [partial] reason for the difference he highlights between specialists with true inter-discpline ability and those who have grabbed a little bit from lots of places.

    Most school and university/college education systems around the world tend to be directed at uncovering specific skills early on, and then pointing students at subsequent specialisation. However we know from study of several diverse disciplines – music mathematics and languages in particular – that the more diversity there is in early education, the easier it is for students not only to specialise during graduate and postgraduate education, but then subsequently to diversify their own knowledge.

    This is particularly true in language studies: we know that when a student has learned their first 4-5 languages early in life then learning new ones to expert level becomes increasingly easier. This capability extends beyond the purely formal linguistic aspects of a language – it’s almost impossible to absorb a language well without gaining significant understanding of the context in which the language is or was used along with the culture and framework of that society.
    Good multi-linguists are frequently also good [if unqualified] social psychologists and cultural observers of differences.

    I believe it follows from this that we need our early education systems to deliver broader and much more generalised factual, language and cultural bases for pupils and students so that a far wider set of general concepts and cultural references are absorbed, with slightly less focus on driving grade school students towards specific disciplines. That way there’s a higher likelihood of cross connection and cross fertilisation occuring at a later date, even when the individual remains a specialist for the rest of their lives.

    Robert

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Robert,

    Thanks. You brought up a lot of aspects I wasn’t aware of.

    Regarding language, I did notice in the Ukraine (where people grow up speaking both Ukrainian and Russian) people seemed to pick up further languages easier, so that would lend some anecdotal evidence to your point.

    - Greg

    [Reply]

  4. June 24, 2010

    Great post Greg,

    With respect to the research showing that it takes about 10 years to become an “expert” in a field. I always am of the mind of what does that exactly mean. . .an “expert” (I’d much prefer discussion about having expertise than being an expert). I think anyone will agree that the more you learn the less you know. So being an expert is relative. You might be an expert compared to Joe Blow but are you an expert compared to Einstein?

    What I strongly believe is that interdisciplinary is a heavy word should be looked at more in the sense of the spirit of the word vs. its literally meaning. Particularly in business (the academic world is an entirely different beast as the conversations of Einat and Robert speak more to). Interdisciplinary thinking for me means being aware of the broad array of dynamics at play that influence and determines customer behavior. I emphasize “being aware” because simply being aware of the existence of something that someone else is not aware of, puts you leaps and bounds ahead of others (you don’t even have to understand it entirely. . .just be aware of it).

    Have you ever read the Medici Affect by Frans Johansson? If you have then I need not go further. If you haven’t. . .I highly recommend reading it. He talks EXACTLY about your theme of synthesis and how innovation is powerful at the intersection of disciplines (but from a business perspective). In my top 10 of fave business books.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Rasul,

    Nice to see you again. Yes, I read the Medici Effect, but some years ago. I’ll take another look.

    Btw. The 10 years rule comes from research by Anders Ericsson and was based on world class performers (and it wasn’t any experience, but “deliberate practice”).

    You can find more info here: http://www.coachingmanagement.nl/The%20Making%20of%20an%20Expert.pdf (a short HBR overview) and here http://www.psychologytoday.com/files/u81/Ericsson__Roring__and_Nandagopal__2007_.pdf (a bit more in depth).

    - Greg

    [Reply]

  5. November 6, 2010

    This article was personally uplifting to me, as I have been personally exploring various inter disciplinary fields to gain new insights. I think its becoming more of a necessity as we are moving towards an interconnected world. This perspective of synthesizing disparate ideas reminds me of Geoffrey Chew’s Bootstrap hypothesis in Physics which states that nature cannot be reduced to fundamental building blocks, but through mutually consistent relationships, thus setting the ground for quantum aspects of matter. I am big fan of Quantum physics and I think some of its fundamental ideas about perception can give us amazing insights about this connected age. I think we need this bootstrap approach to management where several divergent fields are integrated to arrive at an networked mosaic of ideas and concepts.
    Venky´s last blog post ..Reflections up in the air about our connected age

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Venky,

    I completely agree. A lot of interesting work is being done on how social networks affect innovation. Tim Kastelle, whose research focuses on this, writes an excellent blog. You can find it here: http://timkastelle.org/blog/

    - Greg

    [Reply]

    Venky Reply:

    Sure. Would check it out. I am really enjoying your blog. As a student blogger, I am working on my blog with your blog as the benchmark. Thanks!
    Venky´s last blog post ..Reflections up in the air about our connected age

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    That’s very high praise. Thank you for it!

    One piece of advice: Keep a reserve and try to avoid posting the same day you write.

    - Greg

  6. January 13, 2011

    i’d echo the comment about developing an expertise before branching out; There is a quality of mind and spirit and intuitive knowing that can come from the development of discipline, thru hardwork, self doubt, struggle and breakthru that allows you the grace perhaps to see quality in others

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Well said, Ken! It’s certainly important to have a focus.

    - Greg

    [Reply]

  7. August 12, 2011

    I really like reading your blog. I have been fascinated by the concept of interdisciplinarity for a long time now. The examples provided really put the importance of crossing domains in context of creativity and innovation.

    Nanotechnology and Renewable energy development are my interests, which I think are pretty interdisciplinary! In context of development of orphan domains in emerging economies, I think interdisciplinarity holds the key as any single discipline has been ineffective for them so far.

    I’ll probably cite your blog in mine in coming days!

    Thanks again :)!

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks Ali! Have a great weekend!

    Greg

    [Reply]

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