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The Prison of Expertise: When Experts Aren’t the Best Healthcare Technology Management Teachers


By George Hampton

I recently listened to an NPR Hidden Brain podcast during which they discussed the idea of experts serving as teachers. It seems like a forgone conclusion that this should be the case — that experts should serve as teachers and mentors to beginners who need to learn.

The interview, however, took an unexpected twist: Experts become trapped in a “prison” of expertise, which greatly limits their effectiveness as teachers.

The concept caught my attention and got me thinking: Are experts really the best teachers — in healthcare technology management, or any other field?

What Is the Prison of Expertise?

The interview I heard was with Dr. Ting Zhang of Harvard Business School. She recently took a hard look at the effectiveness of using experts to teach novices. What she found was experts frequently make lousy teachers.

In Zhang’s research, one of her sample groups was expert guitar players. She asked half of the group to play a piece with their dominant hand. Then, to reacquaint players with the challenges of novice guitar playing, she asked the other half of the group to switch to their non-dominant hand.

Zhang was evaluating “rediscovery.” The players using their non-dominant hand were being reminded what it was like to have difficulties hitting the right chords and strumming appropriately. They were being reminded of what it was like to be a beginner.

The players’ next task was to watch videos of beginners playing and give succinct advice for improvement. The rediscovery exercise made a great difference in the non-dominant-hand group’s empathy and ability to make actionable recommendations.

Now, Dr. Zhang is not solely focusing on musicians — she is at the Harvard Business School, after all. Her primary goal is determining how the status of being an expert or seasoned leader affects our ability to mentor and teach novices.

The guitar experiment suggests that the road to becoming an expert tends to be a long one, and along the way much is forgotten about the learning process. The ego also develops to the extent that we might just feel like the things we know are intuitive and obvious. This is the “prison” of expertise. Experts are trapped inside their own experience without the ability to recall the events that combined to create their body of knowledge.

The Prison of Expertise in Healthcare Technology

Most crippling for novices is that old adage: “You don’t know what you don’t know” — they may not even know what they need when they need it!

Compounding the issue is experts’ blindness to their own inability to connect and share knowledge with novices. It gets worse when considering novices don’t know how to give feedback on effective teaching, coaching the expert to be a better coach, as it were.

As I listened to Dr. Zhang, my thoughts turned to my industry — healthcare technology management. I realized that much of our training and staff development is on-the-job training. We use manufacturer schools and independent training resources, but those are primarily focused on technical skills. Much of the developmental arc in the healthcare technology management industry demands a broader knowledge of healthcare delivery in general.

In healthcare technology management today, there’s a great need for interpersonal skills and stress management. These are the keystones for longevity in our industry, the skills “experts” utilize to impact all the dynamics of service events. Many in our industry become leaders based on their mastery of these skills, much more so than because of their technical prowess alone.

That said, it’s a bit daunting to consider Dr. Zhang’s conclusions. The individual experts I would have considered to be the best to mentor novices are subject to this unintentional inability to empathize and connect with beginners. This means they will need specific coaching to be able to mentor successfully — or they may not be effective.

Breaking Out of the Prison of Expertise in Healthcare Technology Management

As a leader of leaders in healthcare technology management, it’s my challenge to find a way to get people who are very good at something to remember and embrace what it was like to be bad at something again.

How can this be achieved? How can I help those in healthcare technology management break out of the prison of expertise?

I believe we will find some answers by rethinking our means of mentorship. There are two key ways we can do this:

  1. ORGANIZE GROWTH: We need to formalize the novice growth process to ensure we identify and meet their needs. It’s a fantasy that busy experts can do this effectively. We need to create an organized plan to tech new techs that includes direct areas of responsibility for experts — the purely organic process we’ve relied on to date will not work going forward.
  2. EXPAND OPPORTUNITIES: We need to look deeper into the spectrum of talent in our technician pool. Individuals with less experience could be much more effective at teaching, within their scope of knowledge, than a more seasoned technician. Why? Because the hard-earned lessons are more fresh in their minds, making them more empathetic to the beginners’ needs.

The challenges of breaking out of our prison of expertise are many. This is a clear call to reach out to “experts” in the fields of mentoring, knowing full well the process of rediscovery might cause some anxiety. The healthcare technology management industry desperately needs those of us who are experts to develop a new culture that encourages novices, otherwise we could become an endangered species.


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