Social network analysis redefines expertise location systems

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —December 13, 2004
Filed in Anecdotes

When I joined Lotus in 1999 I was whisked off to Boston to attend pre-release training for a new software product code named ‘Raven’. Raven later became ‘Lotus Discovery Server’, and joined a new breed of products called ‘expertise-location software’. These systems trawled through an organisation’s documents and emails to create a directory of topics associated with the people who wrote, read, or referred to these topics.

The software vendors were, in part, responding to valid criticism–that previous attempts to store knowledge in databases had misunderstood the complex and highly contextual nature of knowledge. In response to this valid criticism, companies such as Lotus, Tacit, and AskMe had developed expertise-location systems to help people find other real, live, flesh-and-blood people with whom they could talk in tackling current issues.

However, it seems that these systems have not lived up to expectations, and the level of adoption is relatively low. As with many business initiatives in the broad field of knowledge management, the idea of expertise location was created by software companies that perceived a market in helping organisations to uncover their (often hidden) expertise. However, the software companies understandably emphasised the technological aspects of their solutions. As a result of this perceived technological bias, expertise location struggled to gain acceptance as a valid initiative. Gartner Group reinforced this perception by defining expertise location in narrow terms as: ‘Identifying experts and their expertise to make these people and their knowledge more easily and broadly accessible. Expertise management is a class of technologies that enable this functionality.’1

Given this background, it is pleasing to note that there is a new management practice that goes beyond expertise location and that is not dominated by a technological solution looking for a problem. Social network analysis (SNA) is a technique designed to understand the informal connections among employees. It has been developed in response to a growing understanding that organisational performance and the ability of employees to get things done are largely based on the informal relationships that exist within and between organisations. SNA reveals the number, structure, and types of these (mostly ‘invisible’) social networks using charts that show who is connected to whom. These charts are based on surveys that seek information such as: ‘Please indicate the frequency with which you typically turn to each person below for information on work-related topics’.

Technologically driven, indiscriminate implementations that are designed to improve an organisation’s ability to identify and access expertise fail to take into account the wide variety of ways in which employees can be informally connected. Expertise-location systems fell into this trap by attempting to offer a single solution to a multi-faceted phenomenon. SNA helps organisation to understand these dynamic social networks better–before interventions are designed. Starting with SNA makes sense, and it is to be hoped that it will pave the way for organisations to develop effective methods of tapping into this largely hidden resource.
1. Harris, K. & Berg, T. 2003, One More Time: What is Knowledge Management? Gartner Group, , pp 1-14.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Thanks for the Cynefin note – I’ll check that website out when it becomes a bit more filled – it’s rather barebones at the moment.
    Agreed wholeheartedly on the use of SNA in understanding informal networks of organizational learning. That’s pretty much my dissertation research in a nutshell. I’ll have that up soon, when it’s done. It’s close.

Comments are closed.