One of the more common KM tools is the expertise locator or yellow pages. They present a logical first step for many companies in their efforts at making "what do we know" more visible to the organization. Of course, they are fraught with a number of potential problems around making them useful and keeping them up to date. (At a former company, there were many untouched Notes "expert databases" floating around, which I discovered when our group considered a yellow pages project.) That said, expert locators can provide value when they help people do their work, just like any other tool.
The December 2005 issue of Communications of the ACM has an article on Practical knowledge management tool use in a software consulting company (membership required for full text, a related paper) from Torgeir Dingsøyr and Emil Røyrvik from SINTEF and Hans Karim Djarraya from Computas. The case study is on the use of an expertise locator at Computas, a software development company. The interesting thing they discovered is that the tool had more than the expected uses: that it was useful for both individuals and the organization as a whole. The elements of usage they highlighted were
- Resource allocation. This is one of the expected uses: query the tool for an expert C# coder to be included on a new project.
- Help on problems. The expected use here is the short-term need for problem solving in a specific skill area. The surprise for the authors was that as people use the tool over time, they discover the most responsive experts in a given skill area and seek them out directly for future queries, rather than returning to the database. This is something that's been documented elsewhere as a potential pitfall, as the frequently-accessed experts might become overloaded.
- Sales and marketing. Sales staff have used the tool to guide their hunt for new projects, given the skills in the company. They've also used the aggregate skills in marketing Computas' capabilities.
- Skills upgrading. Since people indicate their (skill) development goals, they can be assigned to projects where those skills are needed, creating opportunities to advance and hone those skills. And at the end of projects, people update their competencies to keep the system up-to-date.
Regarding points one and two, the particular implementation at Computas has some features that get around the concerns about being contacted too frequently on a given topic. The tool lets people indicate their current expertise level and their future plans around a given skill. Those who are interested in developing a given skill are highlighted differently than those who are not interested. This gives searchers queues about who might be better to contact, even when current skill levels are similar.