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Techniques for Expertise Location

Category: Knowledge Management
Author: Shawn Callahan
Date Published: 07-Jun-06
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Techniques for Expertise Location

Shawn Callahan


An essential element in any organisation’s success is the ability to quickly find the right person to talk to. Ask any group of managers if this is the case and most will enthusiastically say ‘yes.’ The problem managers face is that many are unaware of the options available to them to enhance the chances of finding these people. Organisations therefore need strategies, techniques and tools to connect the people who need to know with those that know. In the past we relied solely on our personal networks and chance conversations. Today we need a more systematic approach that builds on the utility of our all-important personal networks. Organisations need expertise location capabilities.

Expertise location refers to a group of techniques and tools that help knowledge seekers find those people with relevant knowledge. It emphasises the importance of putting people in contact with one another. Having conversations to address issues is important because it recognises that a vast amount of knowledge in an organisation cannot be captured, codified and made available through search engines and database technologies.

At their most basic, expertise location tools are directories of people listing their areas of expertise. Experience has shown us, however, that the key to successful expertise location capabilities lies in the techniques and cultural issues associated with capturing this information and promoting its use. We can say then that expertise location supports Larry Prusak’s quip that the best knowledge management strategy is to hire smart people and get them talking.

Organisations have tackled the implementation of expertise location in many ways. From this diversity 4 broad expertise location strategies have emerged:

  1. enhance the personal networks
  2. implement manually updated people directory systems
  3. implement automatically generated expertise location information
  4. implement “request for knowledge” broadcasts

Each strategy offers advantages and challenges and a combination may well provide the best overall solution for an organisation.

1. Enhancing Personal Networks - Communities of Practice

How to manage personal networks has been a research topic for many years. As a result a substantial industry has developed around helping people enhance their personal networks. Ever since 1937 when Dale Carnegie wrote How to Win Friends and Influence People we have had a steady stream of advice on how to build better relationships and expand our sphere of influence. Some of the initiatives derived from this research include the development of alumni, email groups, community groups and networking clubs.

In recent years we have seen the concept of ‘communities of practice’ employed to enhance personal networks within an organisation. A community of practice is an informal organisational structure designed to foster knowledge creation, transfer and use. As the term ‘community’ suggests, it is based on relationships between people who share a common interest, skill or expertise. The aim is for members of the community to share learning and practical insights, and assist each other in solving problems of mutual interest. Examples of communities of practice include Xerox’s photocopy technicians, call centre operators, oil well engineers, knowledge management professionals and DNA researchers.

The systematic nurturing of communities works because they provide an informal structure and opportunity for people to meet and interact. In these communities people locate relevant expertise when it is needed. A successful community of practice meets regularly, has access to an effective communications infrastructure, such as email or online discussion forums, and defines roles to ensure a relevant and lively discussion is ongoing.

A community of practice also provides a target for anyone searching for expertise. A community’s area of interest is easily identified. Consequently when someone is searching for expertise that coincides with a community’s area of interest they can send their request to someone in that community. For example, a manager faced with the task of developing a new performance management system could turn to the performance management community of practice for advice and perhaps join the community in order to build new skills.

The challenges in establishing successful communities of practice have been discussed extensively by authors such as Larry Prusak, David Snowden, Richard McDermott and Etienne Wenger. From my experience there are 6 activities that increase the likelihood of establishing a successful and vibrant community:

  • Create a core team of passionate and dedicated people from the outset and identify this group to the community. Make the core team voluntary and enable people to move in and out as needed.
  • Clearly describe the roles and responsibilities of the core team.
  • Establish a regular schedule of meetings so that people know if they turn up to the venue on a particular date and time people will be there discussing the issues of the community.
  • Establish an online collaboration environment and actively facilitate the discussion.
  • Develop critical mass of members quickly. If necessary ‘pump prime’ the online conversation by ensuring thought-provoking emails are regularly appearing.
  • Invite recognised experts or highly regarded employees to join the community.

Establishing a systematic approach to nurturing communities of practice will enhance an organisation’s expertise location capability.

2. Manually updated people directory

A popular expertise location strategy is to develop an information system that lists the skills and experience of people in the organisation. This application typically resides on the corporate intranet and anyone can search for people based on attributes such as name, role, location, email, skills, expertise and interests. IBM’s BluePages system is a good example. BluePages lists every IBM employee, a number exceeding 300,000 people.

BluePages contains two types of information: details of a person that are updated by IBM (controlled); and information provided by the individual that describes their skills, experience and interests.

BluePages offers 3 important functions in addition to the ability to find a specific person. Upon finding a person one can then view that person’s reporting chain (who they report to and their boss’s boss and so on, all the way up to the CEO), their peers, and the person’s direct reports. This information is important in a large organisation because one regularly receive requests to assist and provide information from unfamiliar people. By understanding what part of the organisation they are from BluePages provides additional context to guide a response. Figure 1 shows the controlled information for my BluePages record while I worked at IBM and the links to the report-to-chain and my peers (same manager).

Figure 1: Controlled information from BluePages

Manually updated people directory systems are notorious for becoming outdated. IBM partly addresses this issue by linking operational information systems, such as the expense claiming system, to BluePages. When an employee submits an expense, the expense claiming system uses BluePages information to determine who will approve the claim—the manager in the reporting chain. If this information is incorrect the expenses remains unapproved and this situation provides sufficient motivation for the employee to ensure BluePages is updated. This approach only works for a subset of information in BluePages. The information provided in the persona page is provided on a voluntary basis and consequently we need to develop alternative approaches to motivate people to enter and maintain this information.

Figure 2 shows the type of information that can be provided in the voluntary persona page. The 3 categories of information are projects, experience and interests. For each category a person can provide a description and links to other web sites. It is also possible to include your photograph.

Figure 2: Voluntary information from BluePages

A major challenge is to motivate people to provide information to their persona page. One approach is to link the persona information to the development of communities of practice. For example, when developing a community of practice, suggest to the members that each will update their persona page with information relevant to the community as a way for the members to better understand their colleagues in terms of the types of projects they have worked on, the experiences they have had and so on. Admittedly this information will be focussed on the needs of the community of practice but over time as people get involved in multiple communities their persona information will evolve and be enriched.

3. Automatically generated expertise location information

In response to the difficulties in manually updating people directory information, software companies like Lotus Software, Autonomy and Ask Me has developed solutions to automatically create pointers to expertise. Admittedly a slightly out of date example is that of Lotus Discovery Server (LDS). LDS automatically creates expertise location information in two steps: first by sifting through an organisation’s documents and automatically creating a taxonomy (a set of categories) for those documents; then extracting people’s names from the documents and associating them to particular categories. With this information one can find people who know about particular topics.

This information is further enhanced by tracking how people are using the documents so that, for example, as a person reads, forwards via email, bookmarks or creates documents their name is more strongly associated to the topic of the documents they have been dealing with.

The advantage of this approach is that the expertise information is automatically created; it doesn’t require people to update their own expertise information (such as a persona page) and the results reflect what a person actually does rather than what they say they do.

4. “Request for knowledge” broadcasts

In the preceding examples we have focused on proactive approaches to finding experts. In each case a knowledge seeker attempts to pin-point a person who can help meet their knowledge needs. An effective alternative is to post a ‘knowledge wanted’ message in a public place like the corporate intranet. This place would be divided into categories and potential knowledge providers could subscribe to categories they believe they may be able to answer.

IBM provides a few examples of this type of approach. Firstly Lotus Software use an intellectual capital management system called Knowledge Networks for Intellectual Capital (KNIC) that enables any of its users to post a request for intellectual capital. This request is emailed to those who have subscribed to that category.

The Lotus Answer Network (LAN) is a variation on the same theme in that it enables anyone within Lotus to post a question about any of the products. Anyone can provide an answer but the relevant product management group must provide an answer within a specified period of time.

Finally IBM Redbooks provide another example. Anyone in IBM (including their clients) can apply to help write an IBM Redbook (typically an in-depth technical description of a product). The current Redbooks to be written are posted in the Internet and people are asked to submit their resume to be selected to participate. If successful they are sent to wherever the product is being developed to work with a team of 6-8 other professionals for up to 4 weeks.

Understanding the problem

Finding a relevant expert, however, involves more that locating the right community of practice or typing some search terms into an expertise location system. A good proportion of the challenge is the ability to define the problem you are attempting to address.

A friend of mine had a problem connecting his digital camera to his computer. The error message suggested it was an operating system problem so he went to the Microsoft web page and found that the driver he had was incompatible with his camera. As a result he was forced to connect his camera using the much slower serial port—it worked but it was painfully slow.

On the same day he needed to call the photographic shop about a totally different issue. The shop clerk happened to ask how my friend had his camera connected to his computer and then laughed out loud when he heard the story. The camera shop assistant said my friend should buy a flash card reader and his downloads would be significantly faster. He did and was extremely happy with the result.

It had never occurred to my friend that the camera shop would have the answer as he thought he had a software problem. This story highlights the importance of knowing what sort of problem you have before you seek expert advice or be ready to uncover your problem in stages as you talk to various experts.

Protecting experts

Expertise locators result in people being identified as knowledgeable in particular areas that no one would have thought of before. Also people who had previously never been identified as an ‘expert’ will now appear on the corporate expertise radar. These two aspects have a couple of interesting side effects.

Newly identified experts will begin to receive questions and, depending on the popularity of the topic, could become overwhelmed with the increase workload required to answer questions. A common issue then becomes, “who pays for this person to answer these questions?” An expert within one business line may be required to answer questions from other business lines, and if budgets are divided by business line, this could become an issue.

Consequently, popular experts need to develop coping strategies to deal with this increased workload. A coping strategy might be simply to have an Intranet home page clearly describing the communication protocol to be used to ask questions of the expert. It might start by asking people to read the expert’s frequently-asked questions document and only then contact the expert if the FAQ does not provide the required information.

How to get started

As business becomes more complex and the pace of change continues to accelerate, it is vital that organisations have expertise location strategies in place. The preceding examples provide a list of potential initiatives which could be implemented. Selecting which initiatives to undertake and in which order requires matching the characteristics of the initiatives with the organisation’s current environment (technical, cultural, leadership, business objectives, etc.) then prioritising the initiatives in terms of the potential value they would bring to the organisation and the ease with which they could be implemented.

It is quite likely that all the initiatives described above could be implemented in an organisation. As each is made available the overall expertise location capability is enhanced and in times of rapid change it is important we focus on capabilities that enable people to rapidly respond to the changing environment.