Marcelo Rinesi: The Expertise Light Speed Barrier

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 1 Idea Stage, Rules of Thumb

The following article is copyright Marcelo Rinesi and was originally published in October 2009 on the now defunct “Frontier Economy” website as “There is No Quick Way To Win The World Cup.” It is republished here in it’s entirety with his written permission. I think his fundamental insight about how long it takes to develop expertise around a new tool or technology has profound implications.

Winning the soccer World Cup, or even just getting into its final stages, is a very difficult achievement. Some countries make it look easy, just like professional athletes can make extraordinary physical feats seem “just a bit above average,” but in fact it takes many years of concerted effort to arrive at that level of collective skill.

The key to the delay inherent in the development of world class performance, whether in sports or in other activities, is the often-mentioned rule of thumb of it taking about ten years of focused practice from an individual to become an expert in a discipline. This often requires people to begin training at very young age; professional sports is perhaps the most visible example of the tendency to professionalize the management of highly skilled individuals at ever-younger ages.

But turning young kids into young soccer cracks that will later become national heroes requires not only their raw potential, but also numbers (that is, a society large and interested enough in the sport that there is an ample pool of talent to select from) and teachers, which themselves have to be well-versed in what they teach. This can take at least a couple of “generations” of experts to develop, a development course that cannot be sped up much by applying more resources. For example, while wealthy countries routinely hire expert coaches and physical trainers, even well-defined activities like competition sports involve a complex network of skills and traditions which cannot easily be transplanted from one place to another.

The same rules of expertise acquisition apply to all endeavors in business and industry. While political and economic time frames are constantly getting shorter, a failure to take into account the basic rates of human capital accumulation can make leaders underestimate the time required to replicate a successful organization elsewhere. Recent histories of quick and sustained economic growth have generally been preceded by at least a decade of deliberate human capital accumulation, something not all political or management cultures are willing to support.

Also, it’s interesting to note that the Internet as a large-scale phenomenon is still very young; it doesn’t have much more than a decade. It could be argued that the “Web 2.0” explosion (which was, in fact, implied in much of the pre-Internet literature) could be at least in part related to the fact that only now does the world count with a large and highly skilled workforce with years of Internet-scale computing experience. This isn’t meant to disparage technologists of previous eras. It is undeniable, though, that the only way to gain experience with Internet-scale computing is to work with an Internet, and there wasn’t one available until recently.

So although technologies seem to appear at ever-faster rates, we still only come to fully dominate them years later. Will this gap ever be reduced? Should we manage to defeat the “expertise light speed barrier” and find ways to teach and learn much more effective than anything before, it would have an astounding impact on our societies and economies. Until then, we need to be wary of the time investment associated with the development of expertise… and realize that just because a technology has been with us for a few years, it doesn’t mean we are fully aware of what it can be used for.

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