The definition of an expert has been pretty clearly decided. An expert has probably dedicated at least five full-time years to learning a subject, and may make tens of thousands of small judgments instantaneously when faced with an issue.
But what is a critical thinker, and what is the difference?
This question arises because I’ve often heard clients bemoan a perceived lack of critical thinking skills in employees within their organizations. The request is usually to develop training to sharpen critical thinking skills.
Some critical thinking skills are innate; you’ve met people who have an analytical mind and naturally parse any situation to figure out what is going on and how to solve a problem. Critical thinking skills can be taught, too. You can teach people to think using validated analytic methods. You can teach people how to think in a linear fashion and consider new perspectives.
While critical thinking skills and expertise are not the same thing, they can both be learned. Expertise takes time to acquire and critical thinking skills require applying concentration to the task.
You can be a critical thinker without being an expert. You may have great analytical ability but no real deep knowledge of any particular subject.
You can be an expert without being a critical thinker. Think of certain types of expertise that are innately intuitive or creative that call for mostly right-brain activity.
Most experts are probably critical thinkers. Even if they don’t realize it, experts are usually applying a series of tests to their area of expertise to make decisions whether it is an artist deciding to use a splash of red in a painting or an executive deciding to pursue a particular contract.
Critical Thinking as a Type of Expertise
Many organizations who are experiencing the flight of baby boomers into retirement are concerned about losing valuable expertise that would be difficult or impossible to replace. The people who know your business and your customers intimately have inestimable value. Sometimes you don’t know who they were or what they knew until they are gone.
Organizations do not have to lose critical thinkers, however. Critical thinking is an art and a learned skill.
If you think your company suffers from a lack people able to analyze a situation and able to make a good decision, that is easily solvable.
Many leadership programs teach critical thinking and arm their executives with analytic skills. It’s important to start at the top with those people who are steering the ship. Let me suggest that it is just as important to teach the process of logical thinking farther into the organization right down to where the work is done and where the employee meets the customer.
The value of good critical thinking skills and the ability to make decisions in the moment have impact at the point of greatest influence. So while you are working with your experts to capture and transfer their knowledge, don’t forget to reinforce that knowledge by arming your employees with the ability to make good decisions in the moment, at the point of greatest influence, while the product is being made and the customer is being served.
Critical thinking skills enhance the value of all your other training, and can be built into training programs as part of your learning strategy. After all, mastering the art of making good decisions is a type of expertise and it is a transferable skill to all areas of your organization.
Think about it. Let us know if you have considered the value of critical thinking skills for all your employees.
We welcome your comments below.