Expertise in a World of AI & Algorithms — Generalists Good, Specialists Limited


In this Thursday Thought, I discuss how inaccessible data can hamper our decision making. I also believe that expert roles, where the data is both digitised and accessible are susceptible to disruption by artificial intelligence and algorithms.

The Blind Men and The Elephant

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town. None of them was aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it.

The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said: “This being is like a thick snake”.

For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan.

Another, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk.

The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said, “elephant is a wall”.

Another who felt its tail described it as a rope.

The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.

None of them could agree.

This great parable highlights the often-limited and subjective behaviour of experts in fields where there is either a deficit or inaccessibility of information. I share it because it emphasises the need for cross-functional communication and respect for different perspectives.

While one’s subjective experience is true, it may not be the totality of truth.

Octopus Pots Kill Innovation

“Sony is a company with too many Silos/Octopus Pots!” — Howard Stringer, Former Sony CEO

In Japan, an ancient variant of the ceramic fish trap is used to catch octopuses (not octopi, I checked)

Fishermen leave octopus traps on the seabed for days. In time, octopuses enter these pots out of curiosity or for shelter. When the fishermen bring the pots back to the surface, the octopuses do not try to escape, they stay put in their pot.

In 1999, Sony was in pole position to dominate the digital music industry. Sony lost out to Apple’s iPod despite a significant headstart with both the Walkman and a selection of other digital music players. Bear in mind Sony not only manufactured devices but owned a music label, movie label and had a Globally recognised brand.

In 2000, a huge stock crash hit Sony. It was only when they felt pain to the bottom-line, did the company decide to react. Japan is known to suffer from a “takotsubo” (literally “octopus pot”) management selection style. “Takotsubo” means they hire from within both the company and the country, from within their oct. However, in 2005, Sony recruited British executive Sir Howard Stringer as their first non-Japanese CEO.

His challenge was mammoth.

In his opening speech to staff, Stringer stated: “Sony is a company with too many silos!” The term “Silo” was unfamiliar to the Japanese audience. This is because in Japan rice is grown rather than grain. As grain is stored in silos, the term silo is very uncommon in Japan.

Scrambling for a synonym for the word “Silo”, the translator settled on “Octopus Pot”.

Stringer had discovered that the Sony silos were competing with each other and internal rivalry was stronger than rivalry with competitors. As a result, hundreds of Sony products were incompatible. To illustrate how ludicrous this was, Stringer organised a side-by-side display of all the Sony products. Instead of being ashamed, staff responded with pride in the creativity of their silo.

I share this story to illustrate how business get so aligned with their “silo”, with a “siloed” way of thinking that they can lose sight of the bigger (holistic) picture.

Siloed Business Practices

Organisational structures used today are based on a very outdated model. Organisations are a way of ringfencing group of people towards a common goal. That goal is achieved through “organising”. Humans always existed in tribes, clans or groups.

Organisational structures date back to ancient Rome who used a bureaucratic military model. This model was then adopted by the Roman Catholic Church. Instead of Caesar being at the top of “the pyramid” it became the pope, instead of senators, the Cardinals and instead of plebs, lay people.

These structures were subsequently adopted for the industrial revolution and the transition to new manufacturing processes from about 1760 to 1840.

We still live with these structures today. If ain’t broke then why fix it, right?

Here is the problem. Structures dictate the relationship of roles within an organisation and therefore dictates how people function and interact. When the people are broken into silos (called departments), they behave in line with those sections. People are loyal to the hand that feeds, so if their silo leader dictates the direction of their career they must deliver to that leader.

Siloed Information

Let us briefly revisit the elephant parable.

The blind men could not understand the whole picture because they all focused on different parts of the elephant. Think how this happens in business all the time. We make decisions with only a portion of the necessary information. We often make such decisions with only the information we have access to in our “silo” or business. We often overlook information available outside our business. When we are making such important decisions we are not accessing all the information required to make a rounded decision.

I will discuss this in a future Thursday Thought, but we see this in media all the time. Media companies fight for an increasingly smaller piece of a shrinking pie because they will not share data, even though that data might save their industry. GDPR offers an opportunity for traditional media companies to collaborate en masse and save their industry from disruption, but instead, they opt to fail conventionally.

Artificial Intelligence is Coming After Expertise

AI will first obliterate lower skilled jobs. Then, it will take thinking roles or white collar jobs.

Specialist information was protected when that information was unavailable to other people. Once information became digital, it became accessible, just ask the music or media industries.

When “expert” information is digitised it becomes accessible. When it is shared with algorithms powered by machine learning it will find patterns quicker than any expert.

The more specific the digitised data and the more specific the command, the easier the task for the algorithm.

Think about this, cross-departmental (siloed) information is difficult to access, so the alignment of information is hugely challenging. It takes company silos a long time to agree on even small tasks, let alone to agree to digitise information in an aligned way, in a way that algorithms can connect the dots.

If this is the case, imagine how long it will take different industries to join the dots of information. This makes that information more difficult for an algorithm to process. An algorithm would need all relevant information digitised in a common way in order to cross-reference the data and find patterns.

The strategist, the thinker or the leader who can connect seemingly-disparate dots has huge value in the future of work. (We discussed this as a gift of dyslexia in a previous Thursday Thought.

To encourage such cross-disciplinary thinking we have to stop thinking Best Practices and start thinking Best Principles.

One Book or All the Books?

This week’s innovation show guest is the author of Creative People Must Be Stopped, Professor David Owens.

David tells us the worst place in the world for innovation is an airport bookstore. The store has a book on every element of the innovation challenge. Every book tells you the subject covered in that book is the ultimate challenge or solution. The fact is this may not be relevant to your challenge at all.

“To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail” — Mark Twain

To make a holistic decision we have to have access to all the information, side by side.

We have to see the full elephant.

I leave you this week with a blast from the past, an ad from the Guardian in 1986.


EP 100 of the innovation show is: “Creative People Must Be Stopped: 6 Ways We Kill Innovation (Without Even Trying) with author David A. Owens, Professor for the Practice of Management and Innovation and Faculty Director, VU Accelerator-Summer Business Institute

We discuss:

The six constraints of innovation

The challenges of silos

How we are constrained individually, in groups and in society.

The challenges of expertise and the opportunities of true diverse thinking

Have a listen:






iHeart Radio

You can find out more about David and his work here:

You can buy his book here:

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