Good Advice or the Best Advice?

When in trouble, find an expert. That is our normal reaction and we know that our pocket book is going to look a mere shadow of it’s former self. These experts are, of course, professionals and we respect their opinions, often in direct proportion to what we have paid for that opinion. In addition, we look forward to the day when our kids will all be rich experts and we’ll no longer be broke.

Corporations also like to employ experts, they will have the captive ones on staff of course, but these are taken for granted. No, the real experts, the high status ones, are the outside consultants who really cost a lot.

Our big problem is picking our expert. Word of mouth is good and reputation is clearly important. But sometimes reputation is built on self-assessment as much as by peer judgment and, anyway, the ‘old boy’s club’ can be a little cozy. Burgman et al decided to probe a little deeper and ask how performance correlated with the status of experts and they have just published their results (1).

They started with the social expectation hypothesis, SEH, which says that the expert with the greater experience and who is most highly regarded is the ‘go to guy’. They put this to the test with large groups of experts whom they set up in workshops to solve problems. They also had them answer questionnaires that suggested solutions to problems, peer reviewed their fellows and gave their self-assessment of their own abilities.

The study showed that the social expectation hypothesis is alive and well, and not only do other experts believe their colleagues are best placed to solve problems, but they are in that category too.

More scary though, the tests showed that the SEH was a poor guide to actual results. Peer status is not the best way to get you the guy who has the best solution.

The workshops worked well in that, with the committee of experts given the opportunity to discuss, suggest and cross-examine opinions, they came up with good solutions. The results were often better, or at worst at least as good, as that previously suggested by best regarded expert in the group.

Alas that means more long, expensive meetings are in our futures. But in our personal lives we’re snookered. A second opinion isn’t the same as getting a team locked away in a stuffy room to give you the best solution to that noise that your car has started to make.


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