Communication Currents

Communicating Expertise: Performing Knowledge at Work

April 1, 2012

It is easy to identify an expert runner or chef. You can watch an Olympian race 100 meters and stand atop the winner’s podium or you can visit a four-star restaurant and taste a perfectly cooked meal. However, in contexts where performances are not as clear, attributions of expertise do not come from objective results, but instead emerge through everyday interactions. Consequently, when we cannot see or easily judge others’ work, experts may not be the most knowledgeable or skillful among us – but rather those who communicate in ways that lead us to believe they are the most capable. 

For a growing number of organizations – consultancies, marketing firms, public relations agencies – the product for sale is knowledge. In these companies, individuals spend more time in front of computer screens than talking directly to others, and assignments change rapidly based on client needs. Because peers’ work is invisible and tasks are not consistent, it is often difficult to know what others know. In these work settings, then, it may be more valid to think of expertise as something that we attribute to others based on communication experienced in the course of work instead of a trait one possesses.

 I tested this communicative perspective through fieldwork among client teams at two different public relations agencies. Interviews with account staff and observations of work practices over several months revealed four distinct communicative practices that separated experts from non-experts in these organizations. Expertise was attributed to individuals who: 1) transcended establish procedures; 2) created opportunities to specialize; 3) handled large quantities of information; and 4) shared unsolicited information. Not only did employees identify these as criteria used to attribute expertise, but analysis also found that employees labeled as experts by peers exhibited behaviors reflective of these practices at much higher rates than those not considered experts.

Though perhaps counterintuitive, employees who dutifully followed directions were not seen as experts. Rather, experts often ignored instructions regarding how to complete assignments, opting instead to create new ways of accomplishing tasks. Ignoring existing procedures was a way for individuals to signal they had knowledge superior to the status quo. One common way employees demonstrated this was by adding material to a report using sources beyond those they were originally asked to draw from. As one employee commented, “You have to really say let’s take a shovel and our bucket and we are going to dig.” Though every employee had access to the same technology and information sources, some individuals seized opportunities to add content to existing materials, which gave the appearance they had unique and valuable knowledge.

Specializing in a task or specific area of knowledge represented another way for employees to communicate expertise. Often new tasks would emerge, giving employees an opportunity to volunteer for assignments. Because jobs were cyclical, with the same people doing the same thing over and over again, the first person to work on a new assignment often became the de facto expert in that area. The repetition of task assignments both solidified individuals’ roles as experts in the respective domains and made it difficult for workers to shift their areas of expertise. Workers frequently mentioned being placed in a “box,” “pod,” or “bucket” with respect to how others perceived their abilities. However individuals also recognized the benefits of “owning” an assignment and avoided collaborating on tasks to retain their specialist positions.

            Experts also demonstrated they could handle large amounts of information. Employees consistently complained about the flood of emails, documents, calls, and meetings they had to manage daily. Given these information demands experts were viewed as exhibiting a higher level of rigor, perceptiveness, and attention to detail than non-experts. Experts had the ability to “remember almost everything,” “keep track of things,” and “pay attention to details.” Employees viewed as experts used a number of technologies and strategies to sort, organize, and access information in ways that others did not. These information strategies took the form of locating lost documents, finding relevant emails, and accessing hard to find online content. Not only was being able to quickly recall or identify useful material seen as contributing to expertise, but failing to notice information that was later deemed relevant signaled a perceived lack of expertise. Co-workers did not hold the illusion that those using the monitoring tools produced the information they encountered through use; however, the willingness to search out and apply this information meant that, functionally, experts were those who brought new knowledge sources to the team.

Last, workers attributed expertise to individuals who shared information with others without solicitation. Employees found opportunities to discuss recent assignments and accomplishments in weekly meetings, team-wide emails, or informal conversations. For example, one employee sent an email to her colleagues with notes from a seminar on new media technologies she had attended after work. In response, she received several requests to work on new media assignments. Because day-to-day work activity was largely invisible, the onus was on individual workers to share successful results or valuable experiences. As one employee commented, “some people ring the bell louder than others around here.”

Understanding that, in many companies, expertise is a product of communication during the practice of work has significant implications for the ways organizations manage knowledge and structure assignments. Traditional approaches that view expertise as a relatively stable attribute or that try to extract and store organizational knowledge riskmisrepresenting the abilities of organizational members. Rather, organizations may want to pay closer attention to what types of behaviors are associated with attributions of expertise and whether those actions are aligned with what the company values. With ongoing developments in information technologies, it is likely that work will be increasingly invisible and tasks more dynamic. However, in these often ambiguous contexts experts will not be hard to find because – for better or worse – they will be the ones telling us what they know.

About the author (s)

Jeffrey Treem

University of Texas at Austin

Assistant Professor