Finding experts in your company.

by Gil Yehuda on February 11, 2010

in Enterprise 2.0

I attended a KM conference recently where a speaker remarked on how difficult it was to find experts in his company.  He suggested that HR create a database and every employee should declare that they are an expert in something.  Then when a manager needs to find an expert, he or she could query the database.

There’s more to this story, and I’ll share the details in two blog posts that I plan to publish about this conference.  But I wanted to take an excursion and talk about expertise locators.

The expert database idea is doomed to fail.  It will never be accurate or updated.  But the problem of finding experts in your company is real.  One would think that there should be a way to organize a list of experts.  Databases are the wrong solution (I’ll explain why).  But what solution would work?

I’m excited about the approach that Aardvark is taking to solve this problem in the consumer space.  I think it would translate well to the corporate space too.  First let’s talk about the mechanics of the solution, then why it is so interesting.  When you sign on and set up your profile, you declare the topics that you consider yourself to be an expert in.  They list many, and you can add any you want.  So far, this seems like a database.  But wait.  Then you connect your network and set up how large of a network you want to engage with.  You can invite people directly, via Facebook, gMail contacts or other means in order to set up your network.  Then you specify how far you want your awareness to traverse — e.g. to limit interactions to your friends only, or include their friends in your trust circle.  OK — you set it up like you would many other social networking sites.  If this was an enterprise vendor — then you’d set it up via active directory so it would know which division you are in, who you report to, etc.

As a participant you can ask questions and answer questions.  When you ask a question, you specify the topic, and Aardvark sends the question to those people in your network who said they are experts in that topic.  Similarly, you can expect to get asked questions once in a while (you determine how often) about the topics that you said you are an expert in.  This participation continues — every so often you get a question, and if you have the time and the answer, you help out.  If not, that’s OK too.  After all, you are helping out your friends or their friends — something that we do all the time.

But many times you’ll find that you are not so much of an expert that you think you were.  You start getting questions you can’t answer.  Aardvark will ask you if you want to modify your topics.  It does this in a very subtle way.  If you decline to answer a question, it just asks — are you busy now (if so it will not bother you for a while) or is this a topic that you don’t want to be asked about?  Sometimes you get a question about a topic that is similar to one that you said you were an expert in, and Aardvark asks you if you want to include that topic on your list.  You can set that up automatically so that it adds topics to your expertise list if you answer questions about them.  Your answers get rated “helpful” if they are indeed helpful.  There are other features too, it’s pretty clever and easy — and I dare say, fun to use.

Most importantly — Aardvark refines your list of topics based on your ability to answer questions. It is better than a static database could ever be.

But the big “aha” about this for me is thinking about a corporate version of Aardvark.  Over time your expertise would be recognized based on what you actually know and share — not based on what you once answered in an HR survey.  This solves a very challenging business problem with a simple, fun solution.

At this conference I introduced myself as someone who helps companies solve problems by leveraging social software tools and behaviors.  Finding experts is a problem.  Creating a closed stagnant database is a poor solution to that problem.  But creating a dynamic system is a much smarter approach.  First of all you get people answering questions — which saves time and money.  And secondly, by leveraging social computing tools (and staying away from emails that hide conversations) it becomes clear who the experts really are.  Employees might want to answer questions to demonstrate what they are capable of.  And administrators can manage the system so that no one person gets too many questions.  Let’s say you get no more than 2 questions a week — that’s not such a burden.  Let’s say the answer is “go to the corporate librarian” — OK, that’s a good answer too sometimes.  But having this kind of system solves a set of business problems that the old database would never solve.

It also solves one other problem — improving knowledge. Let’s say I give an answer to a question that is not complete or correct. Then another friend/coworker (who is in the network and is also an expert in the topic) steps in and contributes more to the answer.  The person who asked has the benefit of a better answer, and I get the benefit of learning something I didn’t know.  Next time someone asks I’ll know more, or I’ll refer the question to my friend who knows this topic better than I do.  That’s a win all around.

The next question is how to get experts to share their expertise?  I’ll post the response I gave at the conference — look for it next week on this blog.

Photo credit: Ed Yourdon, E2.0 expert, master photographer.
Disclosure: I have no relationship with Aardvark and do not know if they plan a corporate edition.  I’m just mentioning them because I’m impressed with what I see in their approach.

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