Take care selecting management experts

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Take care selecting management expertsProfessor Brian Cox has been enjoying success with his various enterprises in which he explains hugely complex science to laymen. He’s now moved to BBC1 to present Forces of Nature.

In a recent BBC interview, he described the present cynicism towards experts as “the road back to the cave”.

He continued, “The way we got out of the caves and into modern civilisation is through the process of understanding and thinking. Those things were not done by gut instinct. Being an expert… means you spend your life studying something. You’re not necessarily right – but you’re more likely to be right than someone who’s not spent their life studying it.”

Acquiring knowledge

Cox is talking about science in general – and his ideas apply equally to the science of management, and hence to managing people and to running a business. And he goes on to say that it’s actually good that none of us understands everything. Aristotle, and later Einstein, coined the phrase “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know”. Those of us who study management and who are experienced in it know this phrase only too well.

The result of this awareness amongst scientists is that, as true experts, they are disinclined to call themselves such.

But a wave of so-called business experts, coaches and advisors is sweeping the land, offering to help managers with their problems. So just who is an expert? And who is ‘qualified’ to practice? It’s worth asking what it takes to be an expert in management, and what qualifications a manager might seek when engaging one of these new-age gurus.

No credentials to practice

Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of business at Stanford, in his book Leadership BS, noted that to be a guru today, one need only “be persuasive enough, articulate enough or attractive enough”. In this case he was talking about what it takes today to be a leadership guru. He noted that it was not necessary to have ever read any of the science on the topic; “no credentials, experience or even knowledge” are required to practice.

Part of the problem is that, today, we all want the answer – ‘the five best ways’ to do this and that, or the ‘seven sure approaches’ to the other. We want hints and tips – for someone else to give us the answer. We’re generally lazy, so if someone comes along claiming to be an expert, talking a couple of notches above our present understanding, we listen. But we’re not inclined to think and to try to understand and as a result the para-expert can ‘pull the wool’ forever.

Cox summarises: “science is difficult”. No one knows all about it at the beginning but everyone has the capacity to learn. It just takes a bit of effort. That of course leads us back to the general disinclination that we all have to undertake that learning. As a result, we are happy to listen to those with only a modicum of knowledge.


Perhaps by being sure about a little knowledge, those self-made, instant gurus are more convincing. Perhaps scientists sound lacking by being reluctant to claim they have all the answers.

So what makes a true expert? What makes someone who can help managers think about and understand management science?

Before answering, we need to understand the idea of context.

Some years ago, I ran a firm that was having some difficulty. For no identifiable reason, sales were dropping. I increased marketing effort significantly and after six months, sales rose. A similar situation occurred some years after and I repeated the activity and again the sales rose. Three years later, sales again dropped and I repeated the medicine. Sales still declined and no amount of marketing had any effect.

This illustrates one of the most important concepts in science – generalizability. Just because something gives a result once or twice does not mean that one can generalise to say that every time sales drop, increased marketing will correct the decline. I had developed a simple model but it was not generalizable and hence could not be applied to a different time and a different set of market conditions.

This shows that a theory developed for one context won’t necessarily apply in another.

What makes an expert

This also highlights the difference between an instant guru and a true expert. The true expert studies the subject. She learns the various theories, concepts and models that have been built up by management scientists over the preceding 50 or 100 years. That study will also inform her about where investigations have successfully supported the theories, concepts and models, and where support has failed and where they’ve been called into question.

There are two good examples of this process. In 1943, Abraham Maslow developed a theory of motivation, represented by the famous ‘Maslow’s hierarchy of needs’. Maslow’s work is useful – but it has been systematically shown to be wrong. Those who have not studied management science still teach it, believing it to be gospel.

Similarly, some gurus have recently published book that proclaims that there is a concept they call ‘emotional intelligence’ (EI). A movement of practitioners has sprung up travelling the land teaching about EI. It’s quite an attractive proposition that a manager can learn to read the emotions of others and can use their own emotions in turn to control situations in the workplace. A large number of management scientists have studied the proposition and conducted their own research to try to support the idea. All have failed to find evidence that there is any such independent concept.

Management experts – those scientists who are reluctant to claim to know in all contexts – have studied these propositions and understand their limitations.

So what makes a true expert?

At its simplest, a management or business expert is someone who has studied management or business science. It’s someone who has covered theories, concepts and models and their application and generalizability. It’s someone who knows what they don’t know and hence when to call in other experts to assist. And in order to be able to rationalise and be critical about new ideas, they should have themselves conducted academic research.

Management is a very practical subject and experience of actually managing helps those experts to understand the plethora of context in which their client manager works.

Take care selecting management experts

Chartered Manager Solid BorderA management expert must have a higher-level qualification in management science; probably a Masters from a reputable university or business school. They must have studied the subject. And an expert must have been there and done it; they must have been a manager responsible for a company or a function for a good number of years. They must have practiced the subject.

With all that, they’ll be able to analyse, model and apply their knowledge to solve management problems. But they’ll do that with care, recognising the limitations of generalisation.

The question to managers is this. Are you prepared to visit an unqualified, ill-experienced GP – or do you demand that the guy you sit in front of in his clinic has at least an MB and a ChB and is a member of the Royal College of General Practitioners?

Of course, you don’t need to ask because medical practitioners – medical experts – are regulated. Your GP needs a licence to practice and a regulatory body checks his qualifications and experience. Management and business gurus are not regulated. Managers must determine their business expert, coach or advisor’s qualifications for themselves.

If you’d expect your GP to be highly qualified, why would you expect less from your management consultant or coach?

The Chartered Manager accreditation for managers and management consultants comes some way to a certification that shows both study and experience, as does charterships in personnel or psychology (though even then, charterships of some institutions do have light entry levels).

If you want to work with scientists who know and understand, and can apply their knowledge and skills to your management problems, call us.

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