One of the longest-lived topics in knowledge management is expertise location, from the early days of electronic yellow pages to the more (technically) sophisticated ideas of automatic expertise discovery. There have been a number of discussions of what it means to be an expert and expertise location recently. It's nice to see how other people think about the questions of who is an expert and how do we find them and what technologies are useful. What follows are my thoughts and some synthesis from recent articles on the topic.
Who are experts? The simple definition is that the experts are the people with a specialized (and demonstrated) skill. But when looking for these people, I generally find the ones that are evident to my world. If they aren't part of my social network, or I don't look in their publications (print or online), or I don't know their terminology, I won't know them as experts. The experts I will find are those that have some bearing on my world. I usually summarize this idea with something like, "The experts are the ones that talk about their interest." When I go searching for experts, it is the people who are most vocal who I will find and who will appear to be the experts at the first pass.
Harold Jarche has a different take on the question of Who are the Experts. He suggests that true "experts" are fading in light of our networks of friends and colleagues and the piles of information available to us. And in a similar vein, Jay Cross's E-Knowledge & I-Knowledge that we should talk about expert knowledge (E-knowledge) and knowledge I've assembled (I-knowledge), instead of the more traditional implicit and explicit knowledge. He suggests that the resources people have today make it less important to rely on experts because they can assemble the requisite knowledge themselves or from their network.
What about this idea of the search for an answer starting in my personal network? If I don't know where to go, I ask my wife or my colleagues to give me some direction. One of the interesting powers of social software is around this idea of connection people to one another. While many of the services are for fun, the business value is in the ability to bring people together AND help them learn more about these potential experts for future collaborations.
[T]his is perhaps one of the main premises from every single expertise locator application available out there: find those trusted experts who would be able to provide you with an answer, or answers, in the shortest time possible. However, ... finding those experts is not an easy task. ... And why is that you may be wondering? ... I feel that is due [to] the fact that in the traditional KM systems there has always been too much focus on the explicit knowledge exchange as opposed to the tacit knowledge exchange. Yes, indeed, too much focus on the information and knowledge to be shared than in the people themselves, in helping them to connect with one another through the usage of communities amongst other types of groups.
The idea that people want to be connected and want to help one another is usually lost in the discussions of expertise locators, but human connection needs be part of the conversation. After all, we are not simply cogs in the machine.
As far as making that human connection, I really like the sense that the experts are the people who can help me solve my problems. They don't necessarily tell me the answer, but they know enough about the problem area that they can point me in the right direction for solving the problem myself. After all, if there were a canned answer the to problem at hand, it's probably easy to find. On the other hand, maybe others want to be able to find, generically, the person who is the expert and can give me "the answer." This points out something important about any project (KM or otherwise): the need to understand exactly what you mean when you say, "I want an expertise location system."
Shawn Callahan at Anecdote has Expertise location on his mind too and has put up a white paper, Techniques for Expertise Location. I like his take on the issues of expertise location beyond the technical "how does it work." Essentially, the less you know about your question, the less likely you are to be able to find an answer because you don't know how to ask the question or who might be a good resource. This is exactly the opposite of how most people think about the value of expert locators. What you really need is a connection to people who can help ask you the right questions. This reminds me of Bruce Karney's Rules for Asking Others to Share Knowledge, which I posted two years back.
On the technology end of things, there are options galore. Here is one range from the crevices of my mind:
- Take your PeopleSoft directory, publish it, and add user-editable fields. (Glorified Yellow Pages)
- Link the yellow pages to information about projects and teams and type of participation.
- Conduct annual expertise surveys / updates and publish the results.
- Publish a people database in Notes or Sharepoint. Allow (require?) people to update their entries.
- Have Tacit, Entopia or other companies dive into the email server and automatically discover both expertise and your internal networks.
- Mash together your technologies, so that thinking and writing and searching integrates across people and technology and information seamlessly.
Once you have your expertise locator, what do you do with it? Find experts, obviously. What else? This article talks about additional uses for expertise locators, such as enhancing the performance review or resource allocation.
Finally, Ingo Forstenlechner asks, Has anyone finally found the holy grail for expertise location?, with a focus on law firms, based on the expertise location article in the recent ITLA KM white paper (starting page 5 of the pdf). Ingo says, "The idea of expertise location is not new but also not yet reality." He does a nice job of discussing some of the ways expertise location could add value to the equation in law firms.
Expertise locators and expertise location continues to be a valuable concept that has come out of knowledge management discussions. For those looking at implementing them, it's important to understand how the tool will work within the context of the organization.