Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The trouble with experts...

I wrote two blogs in September about technocrats and how as experts of science and technology they some times think they know what's best for the larger population. The problem becomes when these scientists start to venture outside there area of expertise. They start arguing about topics with a voice of authority on a topic they know little more than a lay person. The difference may be that they pick it up a little bit easier. However, they are also some what blinded by their own knowledge of other topics and not listen to a knowledgeable person.

I'm picking on scientists right now, but the truth of the matter is this happens all the time. There's a well known (in the US) and depressing example of this during a climate debate in the US congress. During a hearing Rep John Shimkus called a bishop to testify, where he read a passage from the bible where god said he would never flood the earth again, he then went on to say that god decides when the end of the earth will happen, so he's confident that global warming is a fraud (see youtube video). The scary thing is that this guy is the chairman of the subcommittee of environment and economy. The bottom line is that he feels he's an expert of the bible and of religious matters and is using this in a context that he's not an expert.

These are just two examples but they bring me to my main point. There's a greater difference between acknowledged experts and self appointed experts. Scientists have degrees and go through formal training to become experts. Congressmen also typically are well educated and are voted into an expert position by their constituents. If they are experts or not is clearly up for debate, but at least they have been accepted by at least one community as a whole.

Then there are the self-styled experts. I think the two most obvious ones are leadership gurus and social media experts. I follow a few of each on twitter and some of what they have to say is really frustrating. For example the leadership gurus typically have some trite quote from some one. Something along the lines of "When a window of opportunity opens don't pull down the shade" (literal quote not sure who it's from). First of all, this is an incredibly easy thing to say, but horribly difficult thing to do in practice. In the entrepreneur literature I've been reading one of the biggest indicators of entrepreneurial behavior is the ability to notice when there IS a window of opportunity. The second is having the means to take advantage of it before it closes. In the case of academic spin-offs this can be measured through the resources the university has on hand for an academic to start a firm. This is in terms of technology transfer offices, incubators, equity stake investments, licensing and venture capital. Sadly, the skills to identify these windows can't be taught at a seminar. They can only be taught by being surrounded by people that are already able to find them. The ability to exploit them comes from being in the right place. So, if you want to leverage your opportunity as best as you can then you need to figure out how to put yourself in the right position to take advantage of it. See how fun it is to be trite!! The fact is you can control that, it's not easy, but it's possible.

The second group, social media experts, are equally frustrating but for different reasons. The first is that their focus on social media blinds them to fact that in many cases it plays a very small role in day to day business operations. For example, many social media experts say that if a firm doesn't do social media then they are going to fail. That's insane. Many firms the end customer never deals with. There are tons of suppliers that don't need to care about social media at all. An example of this is a company that supplies chemicals to Intel to make semiconductor chips. Most likely a firm like this doesn't have social media, because it never deals with random people.. Now, if you are a firm that does deal with the end customer, we the consumers, then yes you should have some form of social media. That's not to say that some of these supplier companies don't have them because they need to deal with environmentalists or some other protest group.

The other problem with these social media experts is they very easily start to move into other aspects of business. If you keep within your social media bubble I have no problems with you at all. In fact, you're doing something that I am really bad at. You're what Malcolm Gladwell would call Mavens. You're connectors, you have a great deal of contacts that listen to what you say. In social network theory you'd have many structural holes. This is a good thing for you as a person. However, when you start to believe you're an expert in other topics that's when things get dangerous. I read two articles in the past two days that really irritated me. The first article discusses a five step plan to save Google from Google+, it really shows that this guy doesn't have any understanding of how Google itself works. He basically calls for splitting the company and firing the management group. Google made 9.2B in revenue with over 2B of that as profit. He says Google needs to innovate. Google is cutting bad unused apps and getting back to the core business with plans to work on innovation. While the author is an owner of a small start up, he doesn't really know how large companies work and bases his comments entirely on social media aspect of Google.

The second article was on an unofficial facebook blog which argues that Google is done because facebook came up with some algorithm that focuses on keyword correlation. The algorithm is an iterative process and gets better with time. Pretty innovative, but Google's been doing this a long time. Every time they've been challenged in terms of search Google has stepped up to the plate and kept it's dominance in results.

The final point I'd like to make is that social media experts clearly understand the importance of social capital. You can see this from the amount of retweets they send out, the thank yous and the use of Klout. All of these tools indicate an understanding of the need to scratch some one's back to have them do it back. However, they apparently aren't able to understand how to extend this to firms. I believe that Google has a great deal more social capital than Facebook. I would say that Google and Apple have about the same level of social capital where neither company can do wrong in the eyes of a large portion of the population. I'd argue that Facebook, on the other hand, has as much social capital as Microsoft in the late 90s and early 2000's. No one trusts them. They have had a virtual lock-in on the market since Myspace couldn't keep up with their innovations and borrowing of ideas. Now that there are new platforms opening up its obvious that Facebook has the most to lose. Google will make missteps as they develop Google+ into a different platform than Facebook. For a service that is as young as it is, I'm surprised it hasn't made more.

So, you ask, what gives me the right to comment on these people, are you an expert? I don't know if I'm an expert, but I've been trained to look critically at arguments like those presented by the social media experts. I understand business strategies and environments that allow people to create new firms. I would argue that Google+ is effectively a case of corporate venturing, where Google created an internal start-up that produced Google+. So, in the end, yes I think I have the proper insights to address these points.

No comments:

Post a Comment