Originally published June 15, 2015

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On the June 16, 2015 SIKM Leaders Community call, there were two topics:

  1. Discussion on Expertise Location
  2. Reflecting on 10 years of the SIKM Leaders Community (see Appendix C)

The discussion on expertise location, personal profile systems, and related processes and tools was a lively one. It is a recurring topic in the SIKM Leaders Community’s online discussion:

Here are my thoughts on the subject. I start by asking the question “Once you locate an expert, what do you plan to do next?”

  1. Contact them by email, phone, instant message, or ESN (enterprise social network) post so that they answer a question, talk to a client, attend a meeting, commit to a project, supply documents, etc.
  2. Add them to a distribution list, community of practice, or ESN group
  3. Include them in a summary of the organization’s expertise, for example, we have 22 experts in knowledge management

If these are the actions you might take as a searcher for expertise, what reactions can you expect from the experts you seek?

  1. Please don’t contact me. I’m already too busy.
  2. I don’t want to be added to a distribution list, community of practice, or ESN group. If I want to join one of these, I will do so on my own, not against my will.
  3. I don’t care how many experts we have. Figure it out some other way.

What’s in it for those who complete their skills profile? In Why share your knowledge? five benefits are potentially relevant:

  1. Improves your personal brand by showcasing your expertise
  2. Creates demand for your expertise: increases opportunities for sales, revenue, appearances, publications, etc.
  3. Increases your personal morale; people feel better when they can help others
  4. Strokes your ego: when people ask for your help and then thank you for providing it
  5. Aids your career: you can advance based on a reputation for getting results and helping the organization succeed

But there are twice as many opposing reasons which keep people from doing so:

  1. It takes time which I don’t have right now. I have more important things to do.
  2. I’m already in demand. I don’t need more people bothering me.
  3. If I take the time to enter my skills and experience, who cares? It’s wasted effort.
  4. I’m unsure of my level of expertise. I don’t want to be exposed for overstating what I know.
  5. I did it once. Why do I have to keep updating it?
  6. I don’t see my manager or their manager doing this, Why should I?
  7. I can’t think of all the things that I know. It’s too hard to do.
  8. I tried it but, I didn’t like it. The system is too hard to use, takes too long to enter data, doesn’t work reliably, lists too many skills, offers similar-sounding choices, is too confusing, etc.
  9. I already entered my information in other profiles, so why do I have to do it again? Just import my data from LinkedIn or some other profiling system.
  10. This, too, shall pass. If I wait long enough, this tool will be replaced by another one.

Dave Snowden wrote:

If you ask someone, or a body, for specific knowledge in the context of a real need, it will never be refused. If you ask them to give you your knowledge on the basis that you may need it in the future, then you will never receive it. Knowledge will only ever be volunteered; it cannot be conscripted. We only know what we know when we need to know it.”

This suggests that asking people to fill in skills profiles, contribute documents, or otherwise share their knowledge without knowing how and why it will be used is a losing proposition. You can try to motivate people by making it mandatory, withholding payments or perks, or rewarding those who comply. But history shows that most people will resist, and if they submit anything, it will be the minimum.

I have found that letting expertise emerge at the time of need is a better approach. This is best done in a community of practice or an ESN group. If you need to find an expert to answer a question, talk to a client, attend a meeting, commit to a project, supply documents, post to the most relevant community (or more than one, if appropriate) with your request. If your communities are working as expected, you will receive one more replies and can proceed. Expertise will emerge in the replies to the query. By reading the full thread, you will get a sense of the different points of view, see points and counterpoints, and be able to synthesize what multiple people think.

How does this compare to using an expertise location/skills profile tool? By contrast, you would search the database, hoping to find experts in the search results. If you fail, you will have to try a different search, or give up. If you find one or more experts, you will then need to contact them by email, phone, instant message, or ESN post. This typically involves waiting, because as experts, they are likely to be busy. If and when you hear from them, they may tell you that they are not available. They may answer your question or send you some documents, but there may be other, better information out there that you miss. Or they may redirect you to someone else, and the process has to start over.

Communities represent living, breathing collections of people, including experts and others who can respond to specific requests. This is in sharp contrast to a relatively static database of self-defined experts. Communities allow people’s actions to define their expertise, not what they claim to know. People share information and answer questions in the community, and this provides real examples of what they know. Knowledge is information in action, and by being active in a community, people demonstrate what they know.

But how do we know if those who answer questions in communities are really experts? What about frauds, poseurs, or ignoramuses? The community deals with them. If someone provides a bad answer, someone else will point this out. The transparency and self-policing of communities will weed out those who masquerade as would-be experts.

By following all threads in a community over time, you will see who posts on a variety of topics and the reactions to those posts, and thus be able to form an opinion on who provides the most useful advice. And people who didn’t think to mark themselves as an expert in a skills profile may in fact be the best ones to answer specific questions or solve unusual problems. They don’t know what they know until a real question is asked, but when this happens, they respond. They realize that they can help, and it is human nature to want to help when you can.

Over the years, several vendors have offered tools which claim to automatically detect expertise via monitoring email traffic, ESN posts, and other interactions. I have yet to see one that works very well, and if one did, concerns over privacy violations tend to limit the viability of implementation and acceptance by the target population. So I am not a fan of this approach. To paraphrase Dave Snowden, I prefer expertise to be volunteered, not conscripted.

Also see Expertise Locators and Ask the Expert and these two articles by Naomi Moneypenny:

Knowledge Management Author and Speaker, Founder of SIKM Leaders Community, Community Evangelist, Knowledge Manager https://sites.google.com/site/stangarfield/

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