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The Ship's Doctor, Or, the Difference Between Skill and Expertise

Tuesday, September 29, 2015
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

This is a quick reflection on HR and the difference between skill and expertise, but let's start with Firefly.

The show Firefly followed a crew of spaceship smugglers, each with a distinct role on the ship: Malcolm, the Captain; Zoe, the first mate; Hoban, the pilot; Inara, the "diplomat;" Jayne, the mercenary; Kaylee, the mechanic; and Simon, the ship's doctor.

The thing is, they only have so much room on board, and they only make so much money. And every additional crew member reduces the percentage of profits for the others - it's expensive to keep people on.

Therein lies the problem with the setup. Everyone pulls their weight, but it's a pretty crude division of skills: the only options for medical care, for instance, are to have no doctor or a full-time doctor as part of the crew and cut of earnings. In the middle of space, there's no scaling to needs. Everyone else could learn some field dressing and first aid, but it's a far cry from a trained, professional surgeon when you really need one.

The analogous situation for an organization's HR is the question of whether you find specialists or train generalists in new skills. The example that came up recently was about facilitation, and a colleague and I discussed the difference between a moderator - someone who can keep a conversation moving productively - and a trained facilitator, who can design a productive session and get the absolute most out of the brainpower in a room. But there are many such fields: data analytics, engagement, usability, research techniques, and on (or anything that fits the model described in the post Innovation and Rigour).

The problem is that very few teams, staffed permanently with a particular crew with a particular set of skills, need a full-time facilitator. But they also don't need everyone trained lightly in facilitation - it's like the difference between first aid and surgery. What these teams need is reliable, scaleable access to a surgeon when someone gets badly injured. Or, less darkly: reliable, scaleable access to specialized, expert skills on demand. For example, one would only bring in a facilitator when they host major meetings or workshops, or during strategic planning exercises.

The alternatives are dicey. To a point, a culture of collaboration solves the dilemma. But that requires that enough teams have these mutually dependent features:
  1. They've identified a need for specialized expertise
  2. They're willing to fill a valuable, rare open position with that particular expertise
  3. They have enough flexibility to lend that person, on demand, to other teams
Which is unrealistic at worst, and unreliable at best.

Otherwise, there are several models proposed to solve this dilemma: Govcloud or STRATUS, both of which require a bank of expert employees who are not permanently bound to any particular program or set of deliverables. It's comparable to the "corporate services" approach (HR, finance, IT, procurement) but for non-standardized work, where expertise meets policy and program knowledge.

Regardless, the status quo has a gap that most organizations currently cannot appropriately address. But it's the world we inhabit: incredibly high standards for program and service delivery, with increasingly niche approaches to getting there, that may not fall neatly into 40-hour-per-week job descriptions. Have people squared this circle? Are there any other approaches that are working well?