Who are the experts

Prior knowledge involves experiences and expertise, and is a key factor of sensemaking

Prior knowledge involves experiences and expertise, and is a key component to making sense of a problem situation. Interestingly, Nokes et al. (2010) describe this type of knowledge as referred to as THAT and HOW knowledge, instead of WHAT and HOW.

Many people argue that the more skills and professional practice experience information designers have, the more effective sensemakers they are. This is often a crucial requisite that employers (clients, organisations, etc.) consider when selecting or hiring one professional (e.g. designer) over another. However, being an expert information designer involves various other factors as well (here and here). In a previous post, I briefly pointed out the role of prior knowledge as key for the sensemaking process and finding adequate solutions. In the information design community, most people associate that type of knowledge with expertise on something related to either professional practice or theoretical knowledge. But prior knowledge entails much more than those two types of expertise. This post won’t be an epistemological discussion though, but an attempt to re-define the necessary expertise needed to effectively make sense of situations and solve problems.

Expert knowledge

We draw upon previous experiences and situations (i.e. prior knowledge) every time we need to figure out something and make decisions. We use that knowledge to evaluate possibilities, support decisions or discard them and make different ones. Prior knowledge is commonly, but mistakenly, seen as expert knowledge only (either practical or theoretical), but it involves much more than that. Some authors consider prior knowledge involving declarative, procedural, factual, conceptual, and meta-cognitive knowledge. Here, I discuss the former two types (Nokes et al., 2010), which, to some extent, take into account the other types of knowledge too:

  • Declarative knowledge. This is the accumulated knowledge that we have gained through multiple cognitive experiences about the subject of a problem-situation. However, this knowledge is not related to technical expertise, but to life experiences and encountered situations. It affects how we perceive (complex/simple, defined/ill-defined) and deal with problems, and how smoothly we move through the sensemaking process. To some extent it is our personal knowledge; our experiences.
  • Procedural knowledge. This is the know-how, technical skills, and methodological procedures acquired through experiences or education, and provides the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. It is accumulated through the repeated practice of a task activity or solving of a particular problem. It is our expertise.

We combine those two types of knowledge to make sense of a problem-situation. What distinguishes less from more experienced problem-solvers is the ability of knowing in which type of knowledge they are highly or least experience, and of knowing where to look for the missing experience. Acknowledging this simple fact leads to determine the most appropriate strategies to solve the problem.

But we know too much! Throughout life we accumulate (tonnes of) knowledge, and when we are dealing with a problem-situation everything should be considered. So, we select the adequate section of prior knowledge (knowledge compilation) we need for the current situation according to its definition, objectives and purposes. Knowledge compilation guides the creation of and is manifested through problem-solving representations (frames or diagrams):

“Knowledge compilation acts as a translation device that interprets, or compiles, declarative knowledge into a set of specific procedural rules given a particular goal. As those procedures (rules) get repeatedly applied they become concatenated or chunked together into more compact rules. This mechanism shows how cognitive processing changes from relying on the interpretation and retrieval of declarative knowledge to embedding that knowledge into a set of procedural rules that become more compact with use. The result is a context-specific representation of the skill that can be quickly and efficiently executed.” (Nokes et al., 2010).

In simple words, knowledge compilation determines what strategies and skills, but also how to connect them to previous personal experiences to construct understanding and find appropriate solutions for the current situation.

Breadth and In-depth Knowledge

Some authors state five as a relative significant amount of time to gain the necessary practice experience of a field or discipline, but others argue that 10 years of practice is the minimum required to “develop expertise in most domains”  (Nokes et al., 2010). However, like many things, expertise and experience are relative and context-related. As an example, tackling a varied set of problems helps develop more diverse solving strategies (breadth knowledge), but may not give as much depth knowledge about a specific aspect of a field as when similar problems are frequently dealt with (in-depth knowledge). One important factor to determine people’s level of experience is the presence of “cognitive economy” (Warwick et al., 2009) when solving a problem. In these cases, individuals are reluctant to invest time in learning a new methodology, procedure, solving strategy or simply a new way of doing something, and choose to solve the problem with the knowledge they already have acquired through previous experiences.

So, who are the experts?

Responding to my initial question, everyone who approaches a new project with the following mindset could be considered an expert:

  • Learning something new every day. When we first start learning about a subject, we now nothing or very little about it, so we start constructing understanding and improving our performance as we discover new aspects of that subject. However, as our practice continues, our learning process starts to decrease until it becomes steady as we internalise skills and get used to that not-new-anymore knowledge. In short, the learning process curve stops increasing, and the quality of our thinking and cognitive processes start gradually decreasing when skills become automatic actions. By having a receptive attitude, we will keep the learning curve increasing.
  • Exploring new alternatives. Both breadth and in-depth knowledge, fresh ideas and unfamiliar procedures are necessary to be thorough sensemakers. By trying unknown and using a wide range of problem-solving strategies, we could achieve higher quality results and minimise the risk of experiencing cognitive economy.
  • Having a beginners’ mind. Each problem situation is different and unique. Starting making sense of it as a novice will broaden our understanding, e.g. following every basic step and asking the most basic questions.
  • Drawing upon personal knowledge. Taking into account previous experiences, meetings and encounters not directly related to the problem could add quality insights and enrich sensemaking.

– Nokes, T.J.; Schunn, C.D. and Chi, M.T.H. (2010) Problem Solving and Human Expertise. International Encyclopedia of Education, Elsevier, 5, 265-272
– Warwick, C., Rimmer, J., Blandford, A., Gow, J., Buchanan, G. (2009). Cognitive Economy and Satisficing in Information Seeking: A Longitudinal Study of Undergraduate Information Behavior. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 60(12), 2402-2415


  1. Hi, great post, I really enjoyed it.
    I found in my research that there is a transversal factor to the ones you talk about and that’s Social Knowledge: the amount of declarative and procedural knowledge that is not in your body, but in the ones of the people you know. There is a nice paper (http://emlab.berkeley.edu/~moretti/socret.pdf) that shows how social returns of education may be higher than personal return. I wrote a paper about how to evaluate social knowledge (http://www.michelecoscia.com/?p=559).
    I think that’s important because it is an underlying strategy that enhances the four aspects of an expert mindset: exploit your social knowledge.

    • sheilapontis

      Hi Michele,
      Thanks for your comment.
      Your article about social knowledge is interesting too. The only thing that puzzles me about social knowledge is what would happen if you didn’t have many friends, would this mean that your overall knowledge would be lower that that of a person with many friends? Do you know if anyone has conducted any studies related to this? To some extent, the imagine that came to my mind after reading your post was going to a job interview with my group of friends to increase my chances to get the job. 🙂

      • That could be a good strategy! 🙂
        In the case of my algorithm, there is a slight correlation with the number of friends, but it is very mild: it matters more which kind of friends you have, more than how many. But for social knowledge in general, I really can’t say, it’s a topic that it’s probably vastly unexplored.

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  3. Tony Pritchard

    I like your use of the word sensemaking. MA Sense-making anyone?

  4. Pingback: Sensemaking: A structure for intelligence revolution - Analyst One

  5. Pingback: Adopting a Team Approach | Mapping Complex Information. Theory and Practice

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