What is the difference between competence and experience within regulatory compliance?  Although these two terms are used synonymously the difference is between potential and actual ability.  Competence is a general characteristic while experience implies a deep understanding.  The difference between these two terms defines the conversation one will have about any topic.

(In German there are two different verbs for “to know”: kennen and wissen.  In German, kennen means “to know, be familiar with” and wissen means “to know a fact, know when/how.”  I feel this definition applies transitively to the English words: competence and experience.)


Many people have competence of an industry that they obtain from reading about it from various sources: news papers, conversations, and other anecdotal evidence. There are many sources to obtain information: newspapers, blogs, and our mind.  This information is more conjecture than fact.  I call these people analysts.

These individuals will converse about regulatory compliance the way that I converse about the global economy.  Sure I can talk about credit default swaps, the netting effect of them, the IMF, and trade defects around the world, but know better than to try running the Federal Reserve.


Those who have actual experience in a subject tend to talk about it in concrete terms and use statistics to back up their facts.  They discuss concepts and can apply actual evidence to support them.  They know enough about a topic to dive deep into the details instead of staying with surface level conversations.

An experienced individual has researched, installed/implemented, and taught a topic for a prolonged period of time.  These individuals have a deep understanding of the topic as well as the different exceptions and nuances to it.

The Problem with Experience

I’ve always said, “Those who know cannot always speak, and those who do rarely know the details, wherein lies the devil of truth.”  Do you work in an industry where you cannot divulge everything you know?

Say you are a police officer who understands who crime is committed and where the most dangerous parts of the city are.  You know this because you’ve walked the streets, experienced the crimes, interviewed the criminals, and participate in several criminal raids.  Compare that level of experience with someone who reads the published crime statistics or the front page of a newspaper.  That’s experience vs competence.

The problem is that the police officer cannot always divulge details of what they know.  One of the things I’ve learned about any topic or organization is that the more you know the more you realize you are yet to learn.

How we get our news

Combine this surface level awareness of a topic with the way in which news is currently reported.  I had lunch the other day with a reporter who told me that he published 2-3 stories a day, and many of his colleagues publish 5-7 stories a day.

Wow!  I asked how he is able to research, verify facts, identify sources, and really get to the heart of the story.  “We don’t,” he said, “many times we look at other publications such as the Financial Times or Associated Press and write a story based on that information.”  And this is how we get our news.

I once debated for several months about regulatory compliance with a well known and respected analyst.  After sitting down and discussing the topic in person for an hour he said to me, “thanks, I didn’t know that [about the topic].  Most of my information came from [another analyst].”

(That being said, there are many well respected reporters and analysts who do research every story and who do have credible conversations with experienced sources.  Sadly, there are not enough of these out there.)

Where is the Truth?

I’m sometimes shocked how hard it is for truth to swim upstream against the flow of misinformation.  The recent iPhone SMS vulnerability was publicly disclosed at a conference a few months back.  Unfortunately the reporter covering the story misquoted the researchers (Collin Mulliner and Charlie Miller) saying that the vulnerability could be used to take control of the iPhone.  This story was published and syndicated, covered again and again.  The reality is that the researchers could only crash the phone and not actually use the exploit to control the iPhone.

Many times we need to read deeper, talk to the individuals, discuss the topic with others until we find the truth.  Why?


The incentive for any writer/speaker is always page views and eyeball imprints.  How does one get people to read their content?  Polarize the issue!  I cannot tell you the number of articles I’ve read that start out with outlandish claims, only to have the writer interviewed later and then caveat their message.

Making grandiose claims, especially those that challenge the current hegemony and support an orthogonal ideology, will in fact get people to read your stuff.  Claiming that the world is ending will make people ask why.  Trying to explain the difference between nuances of a topic can put people to sleep.


I wish that those with competence would reach out to those with experience to better their argument.  I wish that reporters and especially analysts would stop talking to each other and start looking at the data and interviewing those who have experience.

I also wish that those with experience could disclose more of what they know.  The tides are changing and more data is being released, but what the analysts will do with this data is still unknown.