E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

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Enterprise Expertise Management Systems and Organizational Reality

Continuing further with the subject of expertise location in the enterprise I just wanted to point you folks to another follow up weblog post from Dennis McDonald, over at ALL KIND FOOD, around the same subject titled: Enterprise Expertise Management Systems and Organizational Reality. In the past you would remember how we have touched base a couple of times over here on how expertise location, one of the many disciplines from Knowledge Management, is increasingly having much more relevance in the current business world thanks to the emergence of social software which naturally brings forward a much closer interest in finding the experts since, amongst other things, they have now got a much stronger online presence out there than ever before by making use of all of these different user-generated knowledge tools.

This time around Dennis tries to come up with an enterprise management system that I feel will not be as effective as you would expect and that for several reasons. First, it seems that he tries to formulate an expertise location system based on a hierarchical static structure of going up the ladder in order to find the experts. Asking your management team to find those answers may be a good approach, but it is actually quite restricting because you would always depend on them to some extent. And all that using a very formal system, i.e. through an "expertise database". So I would expect that system would fail more than succeed in most cases, specially if that management line is not very competent regarding those particular questions. He also mentions how this very same "expertise database" gets fed: through self-nominations, nominations by superiors, nominations by co-workers and automated nomination.

I must say that out of the four potential methods in feeding the database there is only one that convinces me good enough to be able to support it fully. And that is the one for nominations by co-workers. You will see why in a minute, towards the end of this particula r weblog post. Later in the article though, Dennis provides an example of how that system would work and towards the end of the article he just puts together a number of different questions regarding how disruptive that expertise management system may well be. And this is where I think that things could be improved a lot more if we just focus where we need to focus: on the people, of course. Here is why.

Expertise location tools are all about the people, we all know that so in principle one of the most powerful ways to enable location expertise to flourish and succeed in the current business environment is by focusing on the nurturing and fully support of communities, whether they are online or physical communities. They are the ones that could make the entire expertise location strategy succeed big time on its own because of the following different reasons, amongst others:

  • First they go across the boundaries already put in place by organisations, business units, timezones, geographies and whatever else. Communities are all about a passionate group of folks getting together around a particular subject so that no matter where they are they would always know where to go to share and collaborate with others in that particular topic. So no need for management to check how much they are being utilised as expertise locators. The communities themselves will regulate that in a very effective way: having an extensive pool of experts to help out the seekers find their answers in the shortest time possible and all that as a community activity. Thus management does not need to worry about it.
  • That way, and because we would be talking about community activities, i.e. expertise location, there is no need to keep track of the time devoted responding to those queries. And the main reason being that communities do not care about time limitations. As I said, they go well beyond that. So, for instance, if an expert is helping a seeker and all of a sudden may need to do something else more urgent there is always a good chance that someone else from the pool of experts will come to the rescue and finish off what the other expert got started. Again as part of those same community activities.
  • Communities will also be the ones regulating the types of requests coming into the pool of experts, so we are always going to find that those particular requests are actually going to match very closely not only the different needs from the seeker and the responder but also the overall community needs themselves, so in this particular case we will see how communities actually regulate themselves which types of requests they would process or not. And all of that without the potential intervention of the pool of experts. I mean, who would go to ask a question on a particular topic to a community that has got nothing to do with it? Somehow the communities themselves will actually be protecting the pools of experts indicating that they would only be used for those requests that would be relevant to the communities as well as the seekers and therefore routing the rest to wherever / whoever else.
  • When communities would be regulating that pool of experts we will also find out that they would actually be making use of a number of different tools as opposed to just e-mail, like Dennis mentions. In fact, we all know that it is extremely rare for a community to just stick around with one tool. On the contrary, because these particular organisms have got multiple members with different needs and different requirements we are going to find out that they would always be resorting to a tools suite to be able to meet all those requirements and needs. That is, a set of tools to get together, share knowledge, collaborate with one another, answer those requests, etc. etc.

    At the same time, and because they are already using a set of tools that the community has been sponsoring already for some time, they would be able to identify a content management strategy that would be suitable for the community’s needs and which will help maintain those different requests that not just the seeker him/herself would be able to use but the entire community itself. That would be responsibility of the communities to figure it all out as part of their overall content management strategy.

  • And then, finally, because this the expertise location is something that would be taking place within the set of community activities already existing and in place we will be finding out that those performance metrics and evaluation of quality that Dennis mentions will be regulated by the communities themselves. Indeed, we all know that one way or another communities tend to draw their own measurements on how effective they are because, amongst other things, they are all quite open and as such they would need to find ways to measure their effectiveness given that everyone is more than welcome to contribute to the overall effort. Those metrics then would not be as strict and tight as if you would have in an organisation playing a similar role.

    Also it would be those same communities the ones who would be evaluating how that pool of experts is actually helping out the rest of the community members to leverage their skills and become experts themselves. Implementing testimonials, rating systems, unsolicited user feedback, tagging, social bookmarking tools, etc. could be a few options to consider. Perhaps even more formal mechanisms of gathering that input. And whenever they may not be providing the expected results they can always act upon them and make whatever the different changes, i.e. rotation of experts, seek other experts from other communities and so forth.

Thus as you can see my ideal enterprise expertise management system would be one that relies more on the social component of the organisation than the traditional organisation itself. That is communities. A social component that in most cases would be base in the structure behind those communities that would be putting forward pools of experts that would be available to the rest of the community members so that they can help out the rest of the members reach the same level of expertise, or closer to, than the original experts. And because of the dynamic spirit of those same communities we would be witnessing an expertise location system that will always be evolving and moving forward and perhaps then at a later time creating multiple complex connections in between different communities and all that within the same organisation. A dream ? I don’t think so. A reality, I would say. What do you think ?

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  1. Luis, thank you for such an extensive commentary!

    Please note that other reviewers have reported that, in some organizations, existing hierarchies do, in fact, prevent the free flow of communication that an ideal expertise management system requires to operate. Not all organizations are ready for their organizations to be “flattened” it would seem!

    I agree that “user nominations” are a good source for adding to a list of “experts.” But one has to start somewhere. One might begin with the nominations by managers of people in their departments they consider to be experts and this should be supplemented by other sources.

    Whether nomination by automated tools (say, one that analyzes network communication and content patterns) would work consistently is a good question. I would still like to see human oversisght to the process.

    I am not sure I understand your comments about “community.” At any given time an individual will belong to many different groups of varying levels of transience. Some groups will be purely social, some will be work related, and some will be a combination of the two. I’m not sure I understand the relationship between an informal group that might form at the office or the factory, and whether or not a real “expert” within that group exists.

    Maybe what you are saying is that people tend to call the people they trust first; I would argue that this may be an inefficient way to find an expert if the group you belong to does not possess the expertise you are looking for and youve exhausted the people you now to call first. The hypothetical example I presented in my paper was a situation where the people closest to the user were not sure who the expert might be, and only when that determination was made was the expertise management system consulted.

    Perhaps you could say that an expertise management system is useful precisely in those situations where you don’t know whom to call!

    I’m not sure I understand your comment about email. Of course what you’d like to do is look up an expert and immediately call that expert and assume that expert is qualified and available, but that won’t always be the case, especially in large distributed organizations that cover many time zones. Email in this situation has the benfit of the ability to be integrated with workflow management and database tracking that will allow for various helpful automated procedures to be implemented, the most critical of which are (a) a record of an accurate description of the need for the expert and (b) help in capturing an evaluation of the quality and performance of the expert’s help.

    But this brings us back to the initial point — if you can’t solve the problem yourself, you seek out someone who can help. In those situations where your frinds and co-workers can’t help, what’s wrong with a little technological support?

    Again, thank you for taking the time to comment. You have given me much to think about as I work on my “white paper,” wich I am tentatively titling “Requirements for an Enterprise Expertise Management System Process.”

    – Dennis

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