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The OCR Glossary


Jeffrey Treem

A commonplace definition of expertise is the possession or application of authoritative or superior knowledge. In practice, however, expertise is often difficult to identify through objective standards and instead exists as the perception that an individual or organization has a valued ability. Expertise is desired by organizations as a resource that can aid information processing, provide increased confidence in decision making, and bolster a firm’s reputation. Expertise can also be viewed as an exclusive form of knowledge that organizations offer to external stakeholders in the form of professional services or specialized business products. A stakeholder’s perception that an organization has expertise provides confidence in the firm’s abilities and reduces uncertainty regarding the actions of its employees and leaders.

Given the value of expertise, organizations often make significant investments in people and technologies, which they believe will enable them to acquire or have access to expertise. There are two primary ways by which organizations can be said to possess expertise: (1) through the enrollment of individuals with expertise or (2) through the use of expert systems and processes. This entry discusses the different ways organizations acquire expertise, presents three different perspectives for interpreting organizational expertise, and addresses the challenges associated with assessing expertise and the associated implications for corporate reputation.

Organizations primarily acquire expertise by hiring individuals with valued, exclusive, or esoteric knowledge. These experts then apply their knowledge by performing specialized tasks within the organization or by providing direct services to clients. For example, an architecture firm might hire both an individual with skills in computer-aided design work to build digital models of buildings and an individual with accounting knowledge to prepare budgets for projects. Because expertise often resides with specific individuals, organizations often have difficulty hiring and retaining their experts. As a result, experts often command higher compensation than workers applying easily acquired skills. Organizations may also attempt to develop expertise internally by providing workers with training programs, experience in specialized domains, and opportunities for interaction with established experts. One common way workers build expertise is through participating in a community of practitioners who share common interests and experiences. As individuals engage with a community of practice, over time they gain experience, share stories with others engaged in similar tasks, and learn what it means to act like an expert and perform expertly. As workers bolster their reputations in their respective fields, this has a positive influence on the reputation of the organizations that employ them.

Organizations also seek to obtain and apply expertise by developing exclusive routines, systems, and business processes. This type of organizational expertise often takes the form of technologies that facilitate the performance of specialized tasks. For example, hospitals can be said to have expertise in diagnostic testing due to the presence of CT scanners that provide a type of imagery other organizations cannot produce. Another form of organizational expertise is associated with knowledge management systems such as intranets, document repositories, or communication technologies that allow information storage and retrieval. Knowledge management systems are common ways by which organizations seek to codify and store the expertise of organizational members. Often, the goal of knowledge management systems is to decontextualize expertise so that companies can utilize the exclusive knowledge without depending on specific individuals. Effective knowledge management helps companies sustain a competitive advantage and retain a positive reputation over time despite the inevitable turnover of skilled and knowledgeable workers.

Different Forms of Expertise

Although it is generally accepted that expertise requires more than the mere possession of knowledge, there are differing views regarding how expertise is developed and enacted. Below are descriptions of three perspectives on the nature of expertise and how each form of expertise can be acquired. Importantly, these perspectives of expertise are not mutually exclusive, and all three can apply to descriptions of individual or organizational expertise. Organizations seeking to build a positive reputation may choose to develop expertise reflective of one, or a combination, of these expressions of expertise.

Cognitive View.

Expertise is constituted by a distinct mental approach to activities that allows individuals to consistently achieve superior performance in a specific domain. Expertise involves more than proficiency; it is characterized by an ability to think abstractly and make decisions with minimal deliberation. For example, an expert chess player may actually consider fewer options than a less skilled player when making a move because he or she is able to easily focus on the most relevant aspects of the game. Individuals acquire this type of expertise through prolonged and deliberate practice of a particular task. Organizations seeking to bolster their reputation through this type of expertise will focus on attracting workers with a record of high achievement in a professional domain.

Sociological View.

Expertise is signaled through association with a social group, which provides knowledge, access, and legitimacy and permits actions for some individuals and restricts others. This form of expertise is commonly provided by professional groups that develop systems of education, training, and licensure that ensure that experts have similar knowledge and abilities. For instance, lawyers are allowed to represent clients in court because they have graduated from accredited law schools, passed an exam assessing their knowledge of rules and ethics, and are in good standing with the governing professional association in their jurisdictions. Individuals acquire this type of expertise through association with a professional domain and the achievement of an established elite status within that group. Organizations looking to improve their reputation through this form of expertise will seek membership in industry-specific associations, exclusive licensures or certifications, or alliances with established professional groups.

Communicative View.

Expertise is an attribution made of an individual by others in a social context and is a product of various signals communicated through interaction. This view treats expertise as relative within a particular setting and not based on some objective standard. For example, a parent who makes all the meals for a family and never puts salt in the food might be considered to have expertise in cooking by a loving child who has grown up happy and healthy but is regarded as a bland, unimaginative cook by others. Individuals acquire this type of expertise through a communicative performance that is viewed by another and interpreted as indicative of expertise. Organizations looking to bolster corporate reputation through communicative expertise will invest in elements of interactions with stakeholders such as improved customer service, more engaging and responsive public communication, or aesthetic upgrades to products or services.

Each of these three perspectives differs slightly in where the expertise resides. In the cognitive view, individuals possess expertise; in the sociological view, professional groups have expertise but confer it on individuals; and in the communicative view, expertise exists in interaction and can be attributed to an individual. All three perspectives can help explain why an individual or organization may be viewed as having expertise by some people and not by others and how these forms of expertise might influence corporate reputation.

Assessing Expertise

Judging expertise can be particularly difficult when the individual assessing the knowledge lacks the ability to effectively gauge performances in specialized or exclusive domains. One consequence is that people often rely on a variety of behaviors and attributes, apart from direct observation of work, to assess expertise. For instance, individuals may use stereotypes about a person’s gender, ethnicity, or level of education to infer that he or she has certain types of knowledge or experience. Judgments about expertise are also influenced by individual factors such as one’s attire, physical appearance, or speaking style. Similarly, organizations can use a variety of tactics to signal the possession of expertise. For example, management consultancies often recruit from prestigious universities and implement rigorous hiring procedures to indicate that they employ only individuals with certain levels of expertise. Additionally, the attainment of industry awards, professional distinctions, or evaluations from ratings agencies are all used to signal that an organization possesses expertise, which can influence the reputation of the organization.

Another consequence of the ambiguity of expertise is that claims of expertise are often enough to garner the perception that an individual or organization has expertise. Because individuals may lack the knowledge to judge expertise or are uncomfortable challenging the assertions of purported experts, claims of expertise can often be difficult to dispute or disprove. Paradoxically, the ambiguity regarding what constitutes expertise and where it can be found helps create the market for expertise because individuals desire the sense of certainty, accountability, and rationality that expertise provides. Individuals seek out organizations with reputations associated with the possession of or access to expertise, which in turn motivates organizations to take actions that help build that reputation.


Expertise is both the valued knowledge that organizational members apply during work and a signal to external stakeholders regarding an organization’s exclusive abilities. As an organizational resource, expertise can be developed through the hiring of individuals with authoritative knowledge or the use of technologies that facilitate specialized tasks. However, the esoteric nature of expertise makes it difficult to judge the validity of claims to expertise, and objective standards of expertise are often not available. Therefore, the relationship between expertise and corporate reputation is twofold: Building expertise is a way for an organization to bolster its reputation, and establishing a positive reputation increases the likelihood that an organization will be perceived as possessing and providing expertise.

Abbott, A. (1988). The system of professions: An essay on the division of expert Labor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Collins, H., & Evans, R. (2007). Rethinking expertise. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., & Tesch-Romer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363–406.

Teece, D. J. (2003). Expert talent and the design of (professional services) firms. Industrial and Corporate Change, 12(4), 895–915. doi:

Treem, J. W. (2012). Communicating expertise: Knowledge performances in professional-service firms. Communication Monographs, 79(1), 23–47. doi:

See Also

Accreditation and Certification; Action and Performance; Capability Reputation; Legitimacy

See Also

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