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Pick Your Own Expert

April 29, 2020
We like an expert as long as we like the advice he or she gives us. If we cannot manage uncertainty on our own, we'd better choose our experts carefully.

In the 1980s the business world began to develop its own standing as a focus for ideas and personalities. There was "business" before that time, obviously, but discussing "business" was considered dull or crass, unsuitable to good social behavior. And discussions of business in general meant "finance" or "human efficiency": Discussing these things suggested a venal or materialistic quality in the speaker.

Once business came to be seen as dynamic and creative, so were the people involved in it. Financiers and executives were people to be emulated and listened to. The Harvard Business Journal emerged as a sort of fashion magazine for trendy ideas, and watching CNBC became a way for ordinary people to feel "in-the-know." Having an MBA was a credit that executives boasted about, even in organizations where science and engineering degrees were more practical. Companies of all types and sizes adopted management techniques to address inefficiencies or minimize product defects, even if the ideas had no precedent in their industrial sector. They'd hire credentialed management consultants to analyze their organization's "Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats," and evaluate strategic options for them

All these things continue to happen now and are seen as normal – and they are normal for various reasons, including the influence of private capital on corporate management teams and the migratory habits of executives who take a successful track record from one C-suite to another. But underlying all of it is that human beings want certainty. So, what seems popular or successful is imitated and emulated. There is a much tribute paid to "innovation" and "disruption" in the corporate communication stream, but innovation and disruption cause uncertainty.  Human nature sometimes will do anything, even seemingly irrational things, to avoid uncertainty.

The present business crisis certainly bears up as case of imitative behavior. By late March most businesses had willingly complied with state regulations to halt activities in order to achieve mass social isolation, to halt the spread of the virus. In terms of management technique, near-complete cessation of all business is certainly innovative, and there has been extensive disruption as a result. Whether it was an irrational move to avoid uncertainty will be debated as long as we live. We will never get back to that isolated moment when we agreed as a whole to alter our near-term futures to achieve certainty in the present.

Surely, it was rational to take the advice of experts to guard ourselves against a dire health crisis. But it was also irrational to do so with no clear strategy for the following steps. How will we combat the disease if social isolation is not sufficiently effective? When can we know if the initial plan has succeeded? What methods and resources of the past can we return to once the standard or "trend" for isolation has receded?

The role of experts in this ordeal is fairly clear, and up to the time of this writing they have served well. But these experts will be challenged by different experts with different plans, seeking to achieve a different goal. "We've reached the target set by these experts by surviving the pandemic. Let's find different experts to give us a different plan."

Most people do not want experts' advice because they admire expertise. They want certainty instead of complexity or risk. We like an expert as long as we like the advice he or she gives. Then, we'll find a new expert. If we cannot manage the uncertainty on our own, we'd better choose our experts carefully.