Is there a difference between "competence" and "expertise"? Should we present ourselves to our colleagues as experts, with a ready solution to their problems, or just as competent peers who can provide support?
A typical dictionary definition of an expert is "a person who is very knowledgeable about or skilful in a particular area" and definitions of the noun "expertise" all share that pairing of knowledge or skill. The use of "or" is perhaps surprising; can you be an expert with only knowledge but no skill, or skill but no knowledge?
A commonsense interpretation would be that expertise should include both the knowledge and the skill acquired through experience and practice. But the drafters of the UK's Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations made a similar error in their logic in defining someone as competent if they have "sufficient training and experience or knowledge and other qualities".
ISO 45001 (DIS2, 2017) is clearer on this, defining competence as the ability to apply knowledge and skills to achieve intended results. The definition requires knowledge and skills, with the additional requirement that the person has the ability to apply these traits to achieve a stated end.
Expertise, however, suggests more than mere competence; its use is associated with someone who has moved to a higher level through years of applying their knowledge and skills to consistently achieve intended results.
The IOSH code of conduct requires members to 'inform the client or employer of the limitations of your competence'
In understanding "expertise" we must make important distinctions between the judgement that is based on "knowledge" and that based on "experience". Knowledge often comes first, but will take you only so far. For example, knowledge of the ideal conditions for a manual handling task will help you to spot the factors causing the epidemic of musculoskeletal issues in a workforce, but only experience will help you to redesign the task around the non-ideal circumstances that you are stuck with. One of the people who does the job might have the experience to suggest remedial action despite their lack of knowledge of manual handling regulations, muscle names or the physics of levers. To be an expert you must have both the knowledge and the experience.
"Where the witness provides an opinion based solely on their experience it is important that the statement makes clear, in detail, the experience which allows the expert to proffer that opinion. The witness must state any limitations to their experience and whether any particular issue, which is discussed in the statement (or on which they had been requested to discuss), falls outside their expertise."
The IOSH code of conduct (bit.ly/2iKjs3j) reflects this need to understand your own expertise. The definition that competence is "a combination of knowledge, skills, experience and recognition of the limits of your capabilities" is a useful one. In signing up to the code, IOSH members are agreeing to "ensure that they make clients, employers and others who may be affected by their activities aware of their levels of competence". This goes beyond providing a CV and list of previous projects. It requires a realistic self-examination and a willingness to say when something is outside your competence, a requirement emphasised further in the code by the requirement to "inform the client or employer of the limitations of your competence".
Our colleagues don't want to hear the limitations of our experience every time we give advice, but we need to be aware of when our recommendations are based on knowledge alone, experience alone, or a combination of the two. Only when the two are combined, with the opportunity for honest reflection on the results, can you consider yourself a true expert. Perhaps the role of a competent peer who recruits the experience needed from those around is the better part.