Don’t hire experts

I’m about to pitch for 30 days of work to spread a message and practical tools I feel are really important. I’ll be proposing to use social media to gather people who “get it” and grow communities that do it and pass it on to other people through relationships. But I’m anticipating the question “why me?” – what is my expertise or credibility for getting this together? I’m considering a radically different answer from the norm…

This presentation by Quentin Charlier, based on an idea blogged by Tim Baker, sums it up quite nicely. In fact, I think their idea is gaining credibility faster than my expertise could on its own.

I set up the first UK radio station presence on Myspace. Our company stumbled over the power of social networks, not as an addition to marketing but INSTEAD of marketing. We learned the importance of going to be where people are, rather than expecting people to come to you.

The exciting days of fast growth in the Myspace community seem like an age ago. All the tricks and tips, the measurable and sharable “expertise” from that particular project, are largely outdated. If we tried the same thing again, it would fail.

The scary, real, exciting thing is that the world has moved on. This is very noticeable online, and particularly within social media which are reinvented daily. Facebook is a moving target. For all we know about it now, there is far more we don’t know. It’s not just uncertainty about the next redesign, or changing rules about embedded widgets. The biggest force changing Facebook and how we engage with it is the changing community itself – it may have just been your mates, but is now also your mum. In turn, people change their engagement as they go from excitement about a social platform to utility, and often ultimately to disappointment and withdrawal. That changes the community again, and it’s a huge challenge to stay on top of what works best to keep people engaged.

So what’s the problem with experts? By the time they have finished crystallising their ideas into a shareable form and laying out for you the basis of their expertise, the world has changed. They may no longer be experts.

I’m torn here. I want to work, and “expert” is handy packaging for clients who want to hand over a job to someone else. But I’m not an expert. I’m learning, asking, testing, trying, observing, reading around, experimenting and – hopefully – still learning, and I can’t see that coming to an end.

In music, I’ve put a lot of work into tools and processes which help radio stations observe the world around them, absorb other opinions, and grow in the ability to make good judgements about songs listeners will grow to love. I would really love to do this better. The people I know who are brilliant and grow their stations are the ones who know how much they have to learn every week, and keep asking good questions as well as giving some good answers. Music is part of their lives and who they are, and not just a day job.

Is there a word for people like that, who are always learning as well as teaching, always testing as well as telling, and resolving to set about a job with a certain amount of “I don’t know” which may be more than what they do know?

Tim Baker calls himself a “junkie” instead of an expert, which is pretty cool, if slightly offputting for my potential client… Junkies need to keep consuming, and I guess that is one way to look at learning – we can’t do it in isolation. A junkie’s consumption influences who they are and what they do, and they need to keep consuming and keep doing what they do because they are junkies. Maybe that’s attractive to a boss who wants commitment. But it doesn’t sound like the healthiest picture…

I think the best word to describe something better than “expert” is from another culture. We use the word “disciple” in church – and hardly anyone else does. It means someone who learns and implies a lifestyle structure for learning – it’s where we get the word “discipline” from. Disciples lived a life of constant learning.

In Jesus’ case, we don’t know the exact Aramaic word he used to refer to his followers, but we do know the ancient Greek translation of that word – mathaytes, which meant someone who learned by hearing and practising. Jesus expected disciples to become good at what he did, including making disciples. That’s a really good way to make sure learning spreads and has influence – to make passing it on integral to the learning experience.

I am not a social media expert. I am a disciple. I am not a music expert. I am a mathaytes. (Discussion for extra credit: can we be disciples of things, or only of people? I’m a disciple of Jesus, and perhaps also of the people I know who do music and media really well. I just edited this paragraph to take out the term “social media disciple” because I don’t know if it means anything. What do you think?)

I don’t know as “mathaytes” or “disciple” stand any chance of becoming popular words to describe a good alternative to experts. But I am pretty sure they are the things we’re looking for which can make a difference. After all, Jesus could have hired experts – there were plenty of well respected teachers in his day. But instead he called disciples who made disciples and changed the world.

Are you pitching yourself as an expert or a disciple? And, given that we are all learning from life one way or another, whose disciple are you?

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