How to build expertise in a new field

Developing expertise takes time. Estimates usually range from seven years or more.

Better pay? More joy at work? A prerequisite to promotion? Whatever your reasons for deciding to build expertise in a new field, the question is how to get there.

Your goal, of course, is to become a swift and wise decision-maker in a new arena, able to diagnose problems and assess opportunities in multiple contexts. You want what I call “deep smarts” – business-critical, experience-based knowledge. Typically, these smarts take years to develop; they’re hard-earned. But that doesn’t mean that it’s too late for you to move into a different field.

The following steps can accelerate your acquisition of such expertise:

– Identify the best exemplars. Who is really good at what you want to do? Which experts are held in high regard by their peers and immediate supervisors? Whom do you want to emulate?

– Assess the gap between you and them. This requires brutal self-assessment. How much work will this change require, and are you ready to take it on?

– Study on your own. Especially if the knowledge gap between you and experts in the new arena is large, think about what you can do on your own to begin to close it. Self-study, talking to knowledgeable colleagues and, possibly, some online courses will help.

– Persuade experts to share. Many will be pleased to do so – especially if you’ve done your homework and have some foundational knowledge. But some may resist for a host of possible reasons, ranging from a lack of time to fear that you are after their job. Their reactions depend heavily upon both personality and organizational culture.

– Learn to pull knowledge. Don’t expect experts just to tell you their most critical know-how in bullet points. Instead, use the two most powerful questions in eliciting knowledge: “Why?” and “Can you give me an example?”

– Observe experts in action. Ask to sit in on crucial meetings, accompany them to conferences and customer visits, follow them as they solve problems. This is far from a passive process; you’ll need to constantly ask yourself: Why did he or she do that? What was the effect? Would I have done it differently? Afterward, insist on a few minutes to debrief – even if it’s just during a walk to the parking lot.

– Seek mini-experiences. The next step is to identify opportunities to experience in some limited fashion, the environments, situations or roles that have made the expert so valuable to the organization. Maybe you didn’t start out in your company’s call center, like the super sales manager you’re emulating, but you could certainly work the telephones for a few days. Any “mini-experience” that gives you a taste of the expert’s much deeper understanding of a context that informs their judgment will help you gain insights. If nothing else, you will be equipped to ask better questions and pull knowledge more effectively.

– Add visible value as soon as possible. The experts and your new or future bosses will want to see some evidence that all this work is paying off. A log of what you have done and learned shows effort and progress.

Developing expertise takes time. Estimates usually range from seven years or more. But if you follow the steps suggested above, you will have these smarts – and be able to use them – much sooner.

(Dorothy Leonard is the William J. Abernathy Professor of Business Administration Emerita at Harvard Business School and chief adviser of the consulting firm Leonard-Barton Group.)

© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate