Finding your experts

Assuming your company is large enough that people don't sit with each other, there often comes the painful realization that Sue has just spent two months on a project, only to discover that Pedro has a deep interest in the topic and could have helped Sue shave off a couple weeks' effort.  Expert location services come out of stories like this.  And they have been considered a staple of knowledge management for quite a while.

From what I have seen, expertise location started with company yellow pages that were converted to electronic use on an internal website somewhere.  The variety of information that could be housed in such a system has exploded, and there are a resulting multitude of mechanism for building and maintaining them today.

In general, expertise location system make a connection between "what" and "who," so that searches for "what" turn up the people who might know something.  Search for Subject X, and out pop names and links to fuller profiles of those people.  The systems I find more interesting have this expertise information coordinated with other searches, so that searching on Subject X turns up content on that topic, but also relevant people who know something about that content (and why they might know it). 

There are two basic techniques and a third hybrid mechanism: Manual and Automated. which is almost too obvious to explain.  In manual systems, all the information is entered and created by hand - most often by the "expert" or possibly a manager.  This information can be the basic name, rank and serial number (hopefully pulled from the company directory); resume; a ranking within a fixed taxonomy of skills; free-form textual information; etc.  The obvious drawback of manual systems is the requirement to keep them up to date and provide some level of verification that people are who they say they are.

Automated systems attempt to generate the expertise information, based on information that is already available: email, documents, browsing history, etc.  The difference here is that with the wealth of information available, these systems have the ability to build a lot of connections that aren't possible to do in a manual system.  The question is, which of these or how much of this do you include in an automated mechanism for establishing credible expertise?  And, once you decide, can you get over the "big brother" factor, even within the organization that owns the work content.  One of my biggest concerns with these systems, is that if they don't see everything people do, they have the potential to skew the information to only what is housed in the repositories visited.

Hybrid mechanisms essentially give users the first right of review of the profiles that the automated systems build.  In most cases, the automated system goes and does its thing, and the users can tweak how their expertise is presented.  This particularly makes sense if the system provides a list of "expert topics" assigned to the user: they can simply indicate their disagreement with the categorization.  A somewhat more active system might allow a user to indicate which content is most relevant to their areas of expertise.  (I just read about this particular version on Technology Review's comments from the CHI2009, A Smarter Way to Dig up Experts.)

The Question.  If you are going down the path of expertise locators, be sure to check with yourself about why you need such a thing in your organization.  Are people having trouble finding people that must be working in the company?  Are the local experts unwilling or unable to provide the right level of assistance?  Are people spending too much time recreating solutions or answers that already exist?  These are all symptoms: have you established an underlying reason for these observations or behaviors.

And if you decide that it's the right thing to do, some other things to check: Is the corporate culture such that people can ask for help and receive it?  Is professional expertise guarded heavily because that is how people are measured and rewarded?  Do you expect everyone to be listed as an expert?  Do you expect everyone to be available to respond to requests?  What happens when they don't (for a myriad of reasons)? 

2 Comment(s)

Beyond Therapy Author Profile Page said:

"If you are going down the path of expertise locators, be sure to check with yourself about why you need such a thing in your organization."

Also a mirror helps -- ask the person in the reflection the question you're asking, let them have a few minutes to puzzle and then hear their answer.

In addition the complex mathematical formula can be relied upon to aid in your search:

x = the unknown quantity
spurt = a drip under pressure

Ask a few open questions to open up possibilities -- closed questions can bring conversations to a grinding halt or worse still lead to an uninvited kick in the wedding tackle.

Jack offers advice on a smarter way to dig up experts -- if you forgot to have the wake then there's never a better time than now!

It's so good to talk so thanks again for your e-mail.

Samuel said:

I've been wanting to read this post for some time and finally had time to. Great post Jack! Good overview. I fully agree with you. Good questions too.
In the company I work for we built a tool that works really well and fit your hybrid approach. At the moment 2 colleagues of mine set up a company to sell this patented idea to other companies. You can find them here: Guruscan. It has also been described in a paper written by myself and two other researchers. Here's the title: Huijsen, W.O., Driessen, S., & Slijp, D. (2007). Expert Finder: Collaborative Expertise
What I really like about this approach is it uses social networks and peer-reviewing to come up with the expertise network. Furthermore, we learned that expertise is much broader than: 'I'm good at document management'. Using this expert finder we could also map soft skills like: 'good communicator', 'good leader', etc.
Thanks for the pointer to the CHI paper. Hadn't read that one yet!

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