Every big company has in-house experts. So why don’t they use them more?
In-house experts, with their specialized knowledge and skills, could be invaluable to both colleagues and managers. But often workers who could use their help in other departments and locations don’t even know they exist.
Talk about a waste! Because of an inability to tap expertise, problems go unsolved, new ideas never get imagined, employees feel underutilized and underappreciated. These are things that no business can afford anytime—let alone in this tough economic climate. Which is why so-called expertise-locator systems have become a hot topic in corporate IT.
To date, most such systems are centrally managed efforts, and that’s a problem. The typical setup identifies and catalogs experts in a searchable directory or database that includes descriptions of the experts’ knowledge and experience, and sometimes links to samples of their work, such as research reports.
But there are gaping holes in this approach. For starters, big companies tend to be dynamic organizations, in a constant state of flux, and few commit the resources necessary to constantly review and update the credentials of often rapidly changing rolls of experts.
Second, users of these systems need more than a list of who knows what among employees. They also need to gauge the experts’ “softer” qualities, such as trustworthiness, communication skills and willingness to help. It isn’t easy for a centrally managed database to offer opinions in these areas without crossing delicate political and cultural boundaries.
The answer, we think, is to use social-computing tools.
Activities and interactions that occur in blogs, wikis and social networks naturally provide the cues that are missing from current expertise-search systems. A search engine that mines internal blogs, for example, where workers post updates and field queries about their work, will help searchers judge for themselves who is an expert in a given field. Wiki sites, because they involve collaborative work, will suggest not only how much each contributor knows, but also how eager they are to share that knowledge and how well they work with others.
Tags and keywords, which are posted by employees and serve as flags for search engines, can reveal qualities in an expert that are far from transparent in any database or directory. And social networks can help employees use existing relationships to not only reach out to distant experts but also trust them more than they would complete strangers.
In what follows, we explain in more detail why social computing can help companies manage their in-house expertise more effectively.
Blogs and Wikis
The most basic task of any expertise-locator system is to help the users make informed choices. Especially in big companies, there can be many experts to choose from.
To learn how such choices are made, we surveyed users of current expertise-locator systems about what they looked for most in an expert. The results, ranked in order of importance: the extent of the expert’s knowledge; trustworthiness; communications skills; willingness to help; years of experience; currency of the expert’s knowledge; and awareness of other resources.
Blogs deliver on all counts. Employees can keep blogs to document and organize their work and to communicate directly with others inside and outside the organization. Messages and dialogues on any subject can be posted, providing another way to help establish not just reputations but communication skills. Instead of reading someone else’s assessment of an expert, as happens in most current systems, users can judge for themselves who is an expert.
Blogs can help searchers go beyond identifying the “usual suspects”—the people they would expect to have expertise on a specific topic. Let’s say a recently hired engineering graduate who is also a Web 2.0 enthusiast writes a blog about it. Soon he or she becomes the company’s expert on the topic. The blog draws comments from other interested employees, and a community develops. The blogger’s ability to convey ideas, depth of knowledge and interactions with blog readers are all fully visible to the community, offering further indications of his or her expertise that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Wikis, or Web pages that allow multiple users to add, remove and edit content, have become useful for knowledge sharing, documentation and collaborative creation in many areas, including software development and training. As such, they serve as an excellent source of expertise identification. They also can be very revealing in the way they put exchanges among the authors and editors on display. When wikis are used as project-management tools, for example, as they are in the software industry, they do more than provide valuable documentation of the project. They identify emergent roles and expertise within the team, provide an account of team members’ history of responses to queries and requests, and enable team members to evaluate their colleagues expertise, helpfulness, and communications skills first hand. The frequency of exchanges, adequacy of explanations and the general openness of each person’s communication through the wiki all provide cues.
The Problem: Workers in search of expertise within their own corporation often don’t know where to turn.
Insight: While IT has made inroads into identifying in-house experts and making them easier to contact, few systems currently offer any clues about an expert’s trustworthiness, communication skills or willingness to help.
Solution: Search systems that apply social-computing tools such as internal blogs, wikis and social networks can fill in these critical gaps in various ways. Posted comments and communication between users help reveal not only who knows what, but who is approachable.
To the extent that blogs and wikis are all about helping and being cooperative, the mere identification of someone as a blogger or a wiki contributor can be a strong signal of their willingness to help. Feedback and commenting mechanisms, meanwhile, allow people looking for expertise to investigate in detail an author’s breadth of knowledge and willingness to engage.
Social Networks and Tagging
Social-networking sites give members a way to link with one another based on professional relations, shared interests, friendships or other criteria. For business purposes, such networks increase employees’ ability to find expertise outside their immediate group or department, and the broader they are, the more organizational barriers they knock down.
They don’t have to be complicated. Even a simple social-network application can keep track of things like who worked on projects together in the past. This can provide bridges to remote experts and help searchers trust those experts more. It enhances traditional expertise-locator systems by telling a searcher not only “Here is the expert on this topic,” but also “Here is how you two are connected: You know X, who knows Y, who knows the expert, Z.” Knowing how you are linked inspires more trust, and potentially more willingness in the expert to cooperate. Similarly, having little in common with an expert can be seen as a plus, when you are looking for help from an entirely new point of view or discipline.
Another social tool that can help in locating experts is tagging, or the attaching of label-like keywords to a person’s name in a company directory, documents, images or pages on the Web. In the context of expertise-locator systems, employees can have tags that describe the work they do, information on their division or group, external affiliations, hobbies, memberships, location and names of projects. International Business Machines Corp. research centers in Cambridge, Mass., and San Jose, Calif., have experimented in this area.
Employees can also use tags for evaluation purposes, such as noting whether an expert has been helpful in the past, and for tagging their own areas of expertise as they evolve.
What is particularly useful about tags is they are generated by the expertise seekers and experts themselves, not by a team assigned to maintain a database. This relieves the company of any need to dedicate resources or training to the practice, and makes the tags more likely to be relevant and properly maintained over time.
Employees also can assign tags to resources on the Web or Intranet that are of interest to themselves and others in their field, making that information more accessible to anyone searching for expertise on that topic. Experts who provide links in this way also build their reputations by showing their awareness of other resources and helping people find them.