konnect Issue-date: 27th June, 2019.

A light-hearted perspective on expertise

Mr. T V Balasubramanyam,
ISA Member,
Quality Metrics Solutions Pvt Ltd

“A light-hearted perspective on expertise”-Sampathu, our local ‘expert’

My father was a landlord, or a farmer who practiced sharecropping in a village 60 km from Bangalore. He would provide the land, the seeds, fertilisers and other inputs. Labour was provided by the tenants. The output would be equally shared by the landlord and the tenants.

Mr. Vanna was a tenant. He often came to my father when he needed money to go to another village for a wedding or when he needed ragi because his stocks were running out. When my father did give him a loan, he would do so reluctantly as past dues would be almost always outstanding. (I need to emphasise that the relationship between Mr. Vanna and my father was not that of hapless debtor and loan shark but more like that between members of a family).

Now my father’s accounting system needs some mentioning. It was not in a table such as name, date, amount etc. It would be in Telugu and would read more or less like this:
"Vanna has borrowed Rs. X on the Monday before 'Kelamangala Festival' (Kelamangala is a nearby village), in the presence of Mr.Papanna, Papanna’s wife and Papanna's brother-in-law, who live in Hosur (a nearby town) and had come to my house to fix the date for the wedding of ............. and with last year's 7 bags of jaggery still due, and Vanna having stopped growing sugarcane he has agreed in front of Venugopalaswamy Temple in the presence of Mr.Reddy, who had come there to ………., to repay in ragi at the rate of Y measures of ragi for Z rupees, and repay last year’s loan by……….and hence Vanna has to totally pay ………..at the time of the next harvest".

It is all in one mind numbing breathless sentence with numbers strewn all over. Breathless, because my father often did not leave spaces between words. Even some numbers may have been written in words. According to my father all these details were necessary, because Vanna was illiterate, and unless all the details were recorded to aid his memory, he might think he is being cheated.

I, a 21 year old engineering student, had on many occasions attempted to understand my father’s accounts. Whenever I asked him for some clarification he would fly into a rage at the inability of his son to understand such a ‘simple’ account. I had given up after being chastised a few times.

Harvest season arrives. It is a good harvest and Vanna wants to pay back, maybe fully or partly. There is an atmosphere of bonhomie. My father is glad because he is getting back the loan that he had already mentally written off. Vanna is happy because he is able to repay the loan and can return to his proud stance of ‘I don't owe a damn to anybody’.

Only Mr. Sampathu, the 13 year old hero of this story, is anxious. Vanna may be illiterate, but his son is ‘educated’: he had gone to school until 3rd standard, and had dropped out after that. The most he could with his education, was to probably write his name, haltingly. But as far as his father was concerned, he could have been a Harvard MBA. His father has brought him along to scrutinise the accounts. Samapthu is sweating and looking uneasy.

But Sampathu need have no fear. My father has no intention of spoiling the atmosphere by exposing Sampathu. He offers Sampathu a special place to sit. He praises Sampathu for his ‘education’ and wisdom. He good-humoredly scolds Vanna for not giving much respect to educated people like Sampathu. Vanna is beaming with pride. My father reads out the account. Vanna in spite of his illiteracy knows every detail by heart; so no one can fool him. My father places the book in Sampathu's hands and urges him to see for himself saying "educated people would trust only the books". Sampathu puts his head in the book. Probably what he sees is what would have appeared to me... meaningless strokes of the pen, some numbers here and there. Unable to figure out the head or tail of it, the little boy is lost in a daydream, his face hidden inside the book. Vanna's face is lit in admiration at his son's act of extreme education. He asks him -in the harsh tone of a tough parent who does not want his son to see his soft side- if everything is alright. My father says ' You must be joking! Do you think he would have kept quiet until now if anything was amiss?', and turning to Sampathu asks 'Do you agree everything is alright? If not you must frankly tell me'. Sampathu nods meekly signifying the approval of the independent auditor. There is a collective sigh of relief. Sampathu can't believe that it’s all over. He raises his head in amazement as if to say 'Is that all?' and finally allows himself a smile.

Mr. Sampathu is the quintessential false expert. We can find Mr.Sampathu in every organisation. The 'expertise' of these experts is never questioned or even doubted by the organisation. Those who can smell these fakes keep quiet for one reason or the other: for the sake of being polite, because it’s 'not their job', because they are afraid of offending powerful people or even for lack of proof.

In some cases, when they are discovered, it is too late, as in the case of Barings Bank or Enron. In the case of Barings Bank, Nick Leeson, a blue eyed boy located in Singapore indulged in reckless trading to lose billions of dollars. Later it was discovered that his bosses at London who were supposed to supervise him did not understand the nuances of Future Trading. In case of Enron, when Wall Street whiz kids and 'expert analysts' with Harvard MBAs were writing glowing reviews about it, it took a low level journalist (who was an English major!) to figure out that the numbers did not add up.

n most organisations, there are no dramatic discoveries of this falsehood. But this false expertise becomes the benchmark within the organization, and the false experts, over time, become real experts in building elaborate defenses to protect their turfs. As a result, the organisations will stagnate in mediocrity.

False experts are those who are supposed to know, but don’t, and those dependent on the expert’s wisdom don’t know that the experts don’t know.

Come to think of it, Mr. Sampathu did not intend to be an expert at first, but having been made to don the mantle of one, he couldn’t help but play along.

"Use ISA membership to become a true expert" !!