Connected - Why is it so hard to get smart people to share?

I came across Why is it so hard to get smart people to share? from Gia Lyons via a mention on the actKM mailing list.  She covers some of the common downsides to attempting brain dumps from experts.  Her notes reflect many of the conversations on this topic.

There is a brigade charge underway to capture the wisdom (knowledge + experience) of the retiring corporate crowd. The urgency is perhaps driven by the fact that these “wisdom holders” will retire, then turn around and charge their former employers a hefty consulting fee for continuing their services. Not a bad gig if you can get it. But, those who have tried the knowledge management (KM) thing in the past will tell you that this harnessing, leveraging, capturing, harvesting – pick your favorite over-used word - is a hard row to hoe. And for the record, please do not try to harness or harvest my knowledge. I am not a horse, nor a corn crop.

Back before knowledge management was a business term, expert systems work included the Knowledge Engineer role (and still does).  This person was responsible for developing appropriate representations of the body of knowledge in the expert system.  And quite often this included interviewing the experts to try to elucidate their rules and expertise: knowledge harvesting.  While it works okay, there were always elements that either could not be discovered or could not be articulated by these means.  As a result, expert systems never quite got to the point of perfection predicted by early proponents.  And there was always some unsettling aspect of using expert systems alone that made people shy away.

The trap, I think, is in thinking that KM (or any other knowledge discipline) is only about writing things down.  This trap is easy to fall into when the focus of the discussion is on the technology, rather than on people and process.

Back to basics then.  There are experts within your business, and that expertise is all over the map from arcane technical topics to customer experts to company lore experts.  They are employed because their expertise supports the business at some level. 

Experts do a lot of things in the context of their work.  They apply their expertise to solving business problems, whether in the lab or in the board room.  They spend time honing their expertise: talking with people, attending conferences, reading, doing blue-sky experiments, etc.  They also respond to questions and requests related to this expertise.  (Experts do a lot of non-expert things in the company too -- including learning from other experts.)

So, when it comes to the experts, what do we want them to do?  All of these things - in the right balance at the right times.  Do we really want them to spend time being interviewed by knowledge engineers or writing down what they know outside of any context?  Why not facilitate their current work?  I don't think these projects should get in the way of their work by forcing them into artificial "harvesting" situations.

There are many directions to go from here.  For example, maybe the mentees should be writing down what they learn, instead of asking the expert to take on the entire burden.  If the knowledge transfer job is necessary, then it has to be in the context of work happening now or in recollection of how a particular project ran.  At least then there is some context around which to hang expertise. 

There is a balance of sorts between being the expert, becoming a better expert, and growing others' expertise.  Adding to the workload only upsets this balance - and upsets the very people we are asking to "share."

3 Comment(s)

I'm reminded of Mary Doria Russel's book THE SPARROW - where one of the main characters essentially interviews experts and transcribes their knowledge into AI systems. Interestingly, in the scope of this story, that person was called a "vulture". Hardly flattering.

Dennis

Nice post Jack! I agree. It reminds me of Snowdens thesis: "Knowledge can only be volunteered". Shouldn't a starting point for companies be do support social networking and/or expertise networking with tools. Within our company we've done that with Guruscan.nl. In this way experts can be found, asked questions and they can tell their story!

Eric said:

I agree wholeheartedly that the burden of learning needs to be on the mentee who works with the expert. To me, a wiki is the place for newbies to record what they learn. They will be recording it anyway - they might as well share what they learn so they can also learn from one another.

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