A number of winters ago, my son decided that he wanted to try snowboarding. As an avid skier, I was pleased that he wanted to learn (so I thought) how to snowboard. I told him that I would set up a trip to a nearby ski resort, and since he had never been snowboarding before, I would arrange to get him lessons with one of the pros there. His response was completely unexpected. He refused the lessons saying, “I don’t need lessons, I’ve already read everything I could find about how to snowboard and watched probably a hundred videos about how to do it.”
We went to the mountain, where he refused lessons a second time, rented him the necessary equipment, and shuffled off to the ‘bunny slope’. As a skier, I could offer no instruction, as the two sports are considerably different when it comes to technique. Needless to say, with no real snowboarding experience, he had a miserable time, and I had a miserable time watching him be miserable. He was on the slope for an hour, more or less when he decided to call it quits. I asked him if he wanted lessons at that point, and he said he was too tired to take lessons, but he should have started with them. We spent the rest of the day watching other snowboarders and skiers from the comfort of the lodge.
We both learned lessons that day, although they weren’t the intended ones. His snowboarding experience strongly illustrated the difference between an analyst and an expert practitioner.
Analysts know a lot about a particular subject. They have researched and read about a particular subject, and may also have written on the topic. However, they may have no real experience in doing what they read and write about. All of their knowledge comes not from doing, but from looking at the past work of others. That is not to say that analysts don’t have value. They can tell you what is currently happening in a particular subject matter area and they can spot trends. Many even try to predict what will happen in the future, though, like a weatherman, their predictions are inaccurate at best.
Expert practitioners, on the other hand, actually work in a particular subject matter area. They not only know a lot about a particular subject, they learn by experience. They therefore have a more intimate knowledge of the subject matter. Because of their experience, they can provide better insights and advice that is contextual and actionable. They not only spot trends, but help to create them. Better than anyone, they can tell you the state-of-the-art in their area of expertise because they work with it on a daily basis.
So, which should you consult for advice, an analyst or an expert practitioner? It depends on the information you are looking to get. If you are looking for trends and ‘forward looking statements’ (predictions), then maybe an analyst can give you what you want, but probably not in the context in which you want it. If you’re looking for a way to solve a problem, in-depth information about a particular subject in a particular context, a ‘reality check’, or actionable advice, go with the expert practitioner.