The highest recognised level of expertise is held by the practitioner-expert. They develop a deep subject matter expertise in a specific niche, obtaining a university doctorate from a recognised intelligence studies centre, or the highest relevant qualification if doctorates are not available. They maintain and evidence that expertise is applicable and current, by continuing to publish research and regularly leading successful intelligence projects in various sectors. Finally, to avoid expert bias and ensure they can apply their expertise to an intelligence environment, they train and maintain professional registration with the Institute or another professional body.
As with many terms there are various definitions of an expert. The lowest qualification for expertise is most likely the legal requirement for an expert as having specific knowledge that is not commonly held or is difficult to explain to the layman. In this case almost everyone in the world can be considered expert in one discipline or another. On the other hand, the most commonly accepted definition appears in academic vernacular and pertains to a university doctor with a current and relevant research record. However, even this very strict definition presents some issues around expert bias and the applicability of that knowledge. In academia a doctor with a solid research record would be considered an expert regardless as to whether or not they could apply that expertise to effect change. The most comprehensive definition is that of the practitioner-expert, an individual with deep expertise in a specific niche that they also work in, applying that expertise in daily practice.
An expert that is not capable of delivering expertise in a meaningful way is useless outside of the field of pure research. Also, the academic definition is largely ignorant of expertise that exists outside of the field of research. In certain intelligence disciplines, doctorates are not the highest or most relevant qualification that exists. For example, great technical minds are often required to assist covert entry teams to navigate the latest alarms, sensors and other anti-intrusion devices in innovative ways. The kind of expertise required is a granular knowledge and skill in covertly identifying and exploiting the vulnerabilities of modern security systems. No applied doctorate in that subject would ever pass a university ethics committee, and yet those skills do exist. In fact, they are found in applied engineering and the professional charter represents the highest applied qualification in that area.
For some subjects, learning is so implicit and outcomes are so subjective that formal qualifications associated with them are largely unimportant. Forgery, disguise, writing for release, briefing/de-briefing and elicitation are all examples of where expertise is of critical importance in intelligence and also where a history of prior success is often the only indicator of such skill and knowledge existing. Therefore, in the absence of relevant qualifications it is even more important to ensure the experience is both relevant to the area of expertise and that a history of success is present. Early experience of failure is nothing to fear, people learn from failure as much as success and so invariably fail before they begin to succeed. But uneventful experience free of failure or success is just the same as no experience at all.
“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”
Vince Lombardi, Head Coach - Green Bay Packers
Experience should be progressive within a discipline. A career should begin with early failure and see limited success gradually emerging with post-qualifying experience. Over the years failure rates should drop and finally a solid history of success should present itself as the benchmark. Success should be present across multiple industry sectors, environments and under varying conditions, indicating transferable skills. Throughout projects, experts should also be able to provide explicit evidence of the impact of their work and their ability to affect change in society through the application of their expertise.
Although professional bodies such as the Institute train and regulate professionals, specialists and a few of the aforementioned non-doctoral experts, universities remain largely self-regulating in their appointment of post-doctoral experts and once appointed there is almost no ongoing regulation. Therefore, many doctoral graduates who were certainly experts when they received their doctorate have lost those skills over time in the absence of ongoing research.
To ensure that experts are informed about, and proficient with the latest developments in their discipline They must engage in continuous professional development such as; undertaking professional training, conducting and publishing research in prestigious publications, reading journals, books and professional magazines, attending networking events, cross-training (training in intelligence and related professions other than the one currently employed in), giving and receiving feedback and reflection, attending conferences, studying at university or online, completing readiness exercises, teaching, being an accredited assessor or completing workshops. This kind of practice ensures that skills and knowledge do not grow stale or become obsolete over time.
It has been speculated that within as little as a year of leaving the intelligence community and loosing access to continuous professional development through an employer, most intelligence officer’s skills are obsolete. This stands to reason as it is an established fact that most technology employed by intelligence services is obsolete within 18 months. It is therefore of critical importance when seeking professional development that it is not received from ex-practitioners whose skill sets have perished over the years and are delivering programmes that are no longer current or applicable. The easiest way to ensure this is to insist on qualifications accredited or approved by an intelligence professional body and delivered by a registered professional or organisation.
But pursuing continuous professional development and maintaining skills and knowledge is not enough. Experts must show that they can continuously apply this expertise for the benefit of society at large. Leveraging their skills and knowledge to effect social change. It is no more acceptable to have an expert in the psychology of covert agent recruitment who has never recruited an agent, than it is to have an expert in a field of invasive medical surgery who has never performed an operation. In order to maintain expertise, it must be continuously applied in practice.
This experience must be specific to the area of expertise. It must also involve using that expertise to directly effect social change in a timely manner. And, the results of any application of expertise must be measurable. Measurable both in terms of strength of the link between the application of the expertise and the change, and the change itself. Intelligence experts should continuously engage in these types of projects in either an senior advisory or leadership role in order to have a strategic impact on the project itself.
Although continuous academic accomplishment is an excellent representation of skill and knowledge, evidence of the ability to apply that skill in practice can only be evidenced through experience. However, not all experience is positive and the continuing development and experiential requirements of professional registration remain the most effective and reliable way of measuring continued professional achievement and development in practice.
An expert who is also a professional registered with a professional body, can evidence that they continuously develop through an objective third party. They can also evidence the applicability of their expertise in practice if their professional role explicitly cites the application of expertise in its requirements and they have cited this as a specialism or area of expanded development with the professional body.
“Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.”
Professional membership also helps guides experts along the pathway to expertise. Beginning as amateurs, only occasionally engaging in intelligence practice and/or lacking the appropriate level or scope of training and education required. Every skilled practitioner, accomplished professional, dedicated specialist and expert begins as an amateur. It is the first step in a journey that will give an intelligence officer the tools to make a meaningful impact in the world. The next stage is that of the practitioner. Like the amateur this individual may or may not possess the appropriate level and scope of pre-requisite training and education required to perform the role of an intelligence officer. However, unlike the amateur this individual works predominantly in the field of intelligence. But at this stage they have not yet undertaken an independent professional membership and subjected themselves to peer assessment and industry standards.
Those who are continually and independently assessed by their peers and are subject to continuous competency, development and practical requirements, have entered the domain of the professional. These standards are set and continuously reviewed by professional bodies who communicate the latest industry developments throughout the profession. Those who possess professional membership continuously prove that they meet the training, education and practical requirements of their profession. Within the sphere of the professional resides the specialist. These are professionals who work exclusively in a field of study and occupation exclusive to the same within a profession. The Institute regulates the human-domain and recognises signals/cyber as specialisms within intelligence. However, it acknowledges that there are many more that it has not yet formally recognised or regulated.
Amateurs and practitioners are defined by their absence of professionalisation and their intent to develop it, where as professionals and specialists are both exclusively recognised by professional bodies because of their practical implementation of the skill and knowledge demanded by their profession. But beyond regulation and institutions, at the forefront of professional knowledge and practice, the expert pushes forward the boundaries of human knowledge.
Expertise cannot exist without professional practice. It is an essential component as the means by which an expert applies his knowledge and skill to affect change in the world. But expertise comes with its weaknesses as well as its strengths, foremost amongst these vulnerabilities is Expertise Bias. Simply put, expertise bias is a set of human cognitive pitfalls that occur in and around experts. Everyone is susceptible to them and we can only mitigate them in part. Firstly, by awareness of the issue and secondly through structured analytical techniques in our work.
Some common ways in which expertise bias manifests itself is; the tendency for non-experts to accept expert opinion as fact, for experts to take their achievements for granted thereby judging those who have not or cannot achieve the same level of expertise and for experts to personalise their expertise and apply it universally to issues outside their niche. In fact, contrary to the legal standard, expert opinion is just that, opinion. Experts can be and quite often are wrong, they are only human and they are as fallible as everyone else. Over time, experts also grow comfortable with their level of skill and come to view it as normal, when in fact it is anything but. Therefore, by logical extension, anyone who doesn’t possess their level of “normal” skill and knowledge is sub-normal. There is also a social and psychological tendency for experts to surround themselves with other experts re-enforcing these perceptions and making them more difficult to break.
“From the base of the mountain, the top seems unreachable. From the top of the mountain, it doesn’t seem like the climb was so hard after all.”
Tim Van Damme, Interface Designer - Dropbox
However, possibly most damaging to an experts position is the tendency to believe that because they have accrued this level of knowledge and skill it is a part of them. Therefore, by extension, if they (and not the knowledge and skill) are expert, their expert opinion can be applied to anything they might personally hold an opinion on. In fact expertise occurs in a niche and is rarely applicable outside of that niche. An expert in the culture and history of the BND is no more equipped to offer their opinion on the DGSE than anyone else. And, if the said expert was to try to apply their knowledge of the BND to the DGSE, it would only be a matter of time before they would embarrass themselves and potentially compromise their legitimate position as an expert in the BND.
Countering this bias may seem as simple a just “staying focused” but remember that these are cognitive pitfalls, inherent weaknesses of the human mind. It is built into our brain’s circuitry to think and act this way and if we try to engage in a constant battle with our own nature, we are setting ourselves up to fail. In such a battle we would have to win every fight for the rest of our lives, and just one mistake could cost us a reputation we have spent years building.
But there is a better way. To continue the analogy, rather than resisting the circuitry of our own brain, what if it was possible to re-program ourselves? Well, it is. Every time we go on a course and learn a new skill that is exactly what we are doing; reprogramming our minds to work in different ways to different stimuli. Training in structured analytic technique and using cross-training to maintain an awareness of the complexity and depth of intelligence disciplines outside our own are established methods of countering expert bias. An expert who continually trains in such a way is not only aware of their own expertise, but the limits of it and how to identify and stay within expert boundaries.
Maintaining the ability to apply expertise to an intelligence environment is also critical. It invariably involves the expert taking on the role of a professional or specialist as well as a scholar. An intelligence expert must not only be an accomplished and respected academic but an equally accomplished and respected intelligence officer capable of bringing the full weight of expertise to bear in operations. This application of theory in practice is invariably evidenced and achieved through ongoing professional registration and certification which requires the candidate to regularly prove just that and supports them in doing so.
This kind of objective third-party oversight combined with research and continued professional development is invaluable in providing current evidence of applied expertise throughout a professionals career. Without professional registration there would be no objective assessment of an experts ability to apply their expertise and no way to prove they had done so over time.
As with any profession, in intelligence there are amateurs, practitioners, professionals, specialists and practitioner-experts. Most individuals looked upon as experts actually fall into the middle three categories. Experts are rare, found in very specific niches with a narrow scope of highly detailed knowledge, and as experts are uniquely aware of the limits of their own knowledge it is even rarer for them to advertise themselves as such.
Anyone passing a cursory glance over applicants CVs or surfing online profiles with find the word expert dropped indiscriminately throughout. This is not to say those people are misrepresenting their skill or knowledge, or should stop using the word. The path to expertise is a long and incredible journey, and all who undertake it are worthy of respect, even more so in fields of great public service such as intelligence. There are also very broad definitions for what constitutes an expert, the broadest of which is in fact a legal term. However, expertise as most would define it has always been very different to the blanket coverage afforded under the law. But, such an abundance of alleged expertise can also seem intimidating to those who would wish to make a career as one. Will anyone be able to tell the difference? Will the same weight be given to others anecdotal opinions as my evidentiary analysis? Is it really worth the decades of work and study if any practitioner long in service can claim the same title?
Well, it can be worrying, but it is also the wrong way to think about it. Experts are at the top of their profession within their field. They don’t compete with others, they compete with themselves. People will know the difference as soon as they hear an expert speak. The differences in education, experience, training, professional recognition and achievements leap out from the pages of a CV. Reasoned evidentiary analysis always shames uninformed opinion, and the power that skill and knowledge commands is rare and special because it takes so long to develop. Dropping the word “expert” into a document or conversation only serves to highlight the differences between the two. Expertise isn’t a title, it is recognition of the highest levels of skill and knowledge built through decades of experience, study and professional achievement in a very specific field, at the expense of all else.
“Wisdom is its own reward, and if you scorn her, you hurt only yourself.”
Proverbs 9:12, The Living Bible
Experts are highly specialised. So highly specialised that the Institute cannot accredit doctorates. Despite the incredible depth of understanding required, those qualifications are of such limited scope they cannot hope to satisfy the broader professional requirements of registration, even as a specialist. The intelligence profession badly needs experts. So, the journey is a valued one, a great sacrifice and public service respected by all.
The Institute assists registrants who wish to develop as practitioner-experts with career planning, advice on university placements, support with research interests, mentoring, continuous professional development, and more. Any intelligence professional looking to develop as a practitioner-expert is advised to contact the Institute as soon as possible. Aspiring practitioners should begin their journey to expertise with training and professional registration.
It is also important to note that expertise is by no means required to achieve excellence in the intelligence profession. History is replete with intelligence officers with world-changing accomplishments, of which only a minuscule fraction could be considered experts. T.E. Lawrence, Gust Avrakotos and Nancy Wake made outstanding contributions that changed the face of world events and none of them were experts. At the Institute we believe that professionalisation should be the aspiration of every career practitioner, and that professionalisation has merits for all. However, expertise is only suitable for a select few. If every intelligence officer were an expert their agencies would collapse under the effort it takes to maintain them. It is important to every officer to know what expertise is and stay focused enough to identify it so they can exploit it. But it is also important that every intelligence officer is not an expert themselves.