Thursday, February 4, 2010

Gorillas, Guns, & Tumors, or Do You Need an Industry Expert?

Occasionally I meet the small business owner who wants to hire an industry expert, or someone who specializes in their industry, to do their marketing.   While I won’t go into all the strongly held positions on both sides here, I heard this program on NPR yesterday that seemed to make a good case for “fresh perspective.” 

The program is called Guns, Tumors And The Limits Of The Human Eye by Alix Spiegel. It is about how human ability to detect certain things (i.e., weapons in luggage and tumor in breast tissue) is decreased over time when the sought-after things are not found frequently.

One of the most eye-opening (pardon the pun) tidbits for me was from Kyle Cave, a cognitive researcher at Amherst University.  The program states “Cave says there's not yet a definitive answer [to whether well-trained, full-time experts in non-lab-environments will miss what they seek often], but he points to a famous research study from the 1970s. In that study, people were trained for weeks on end to look for certain letters in the alphabet among a garble of letters. Eventually, says Cave, they came to be incredibly good at it.”

The pr0gram goes on to explain that it even became hard for those subjects to ignore the letters they were trained to find when they were simply reading.  (Read the full article or listen to NPR’s program for the details.)  Lots of implications here for training and for diversification of work.  For me, if I don’t continuously seek out new interactions and possibilities, I risk providing the same solutions because I am prone to seeing the same problems. Essentially, any client would become Everyclient.  And I don’t want that!

Another consideration: If you’ve ever seen a video where you were told to count the number of times a basketball is passed, only to be asked at the end a strange question about what you saw, you know that focusing on one thing might result in missing something.  (That video was produced by the University of Illinois Visual Cognition Lab.) The same might be said for the industry expert. 

This is the reason I don’t specialize in an industry. I’d rather stay sharp by looking at small businesses individually.  Then, from working with small businesses’ varied challenges, I can leverage solutions from other disciplines to help my marketing clients differentiate and innovate. 

I’m interested in hearing others’ opinions on these matters. Please share your experiences and scientific knowledge or your take on the value of industry expertise.

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