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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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Business Continuity November 30, 2010 at 2:12 pm

Working in a more technical business, I completely understand the frustration of finding “experts.” Technology changes so quickly, and a relevant skill or knowledge base that is relevant now may not be relevant tomorrow. The only issue, which you addressed, was getting people to share their knowledge. Sharing your expertise (aka secrets) with the rest of the world can help competition unknowingly.

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2 David Hobbie March 16, 2010 at 6:46 pm

Finding experts in your company.: Shared by David

Outstanding February post with excellent discussion about #ex… http://bit.ly/aE1CxL

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3 Thomas Ireland February 25, 2010 at 5:16 pm

RT @c4lpt Finding experts in your company. | Gil Yehuda's Enterprise 2.0 Blog: http://bit.ly/cs9T33 @vertexgroup

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4 Tanja Udelhofen February 25, 2010 at 8:19 am

RT @c4lpt: Finding experts in your company. | Gil Yehuda's Enterprise 2.0 Blog: http://bit.ly/cs9T33

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5 Brenda St John Brown February 25, 2010 at 7:51 am

RT @charlesjennings: RT@ c4lpt Finding experts in your company. Gil Yehuda's Enterprise 2.0 Blog. http://bit.ly/cs9T33 Social tools trump expert databases.

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6 Charles Jennings February 24, 2010 at 9:43 pm

RT@ c4lpt Finding experts in your company. Gil Yehuda's Enterprise 2.0 Blog. http://bit.ly/cs9T33 Social tools trump expert databases.

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7 Jane Hart February 24, 2010 at 9:22 pm

Finding experts in your company. | Gil Yehuda's Enterprise 2.0 Blog: http://bit.ly/cs9T33

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8 Dan Keldsen February 19, 2010 at 7:17 pm

RT @gyehuda: @dankeldsen thx 4 insightful comment> http://bit.ly/c7SvdO newbie locator is cute. but we have it: reply-all email <-Right on!

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9 Gil Yehuda February 19, 2010 at 7:14 pm

@dankeldsen thanks for the v. insightful comment on http://bit.ly/c7SvdO The newbie locator is cute. but we have it: the reply-all email.

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10 Dan Keldsen February 19, 2010 at 6:56 pm

Commented on @gyehuda post on Finding Experts in Your Company – great topic, yet underserved/understood http://bit.ly/c7SvdO

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11 Giacomo Mason February 18, 2010 at 6:19 am

SocialSabre is a great example of internal social network of Q&A with a great siystem of finding expert. Results are amazing.

http://www.steptwo.com.au/files/IntranetInnovations2009_ExecutiveSummary.pdf

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12 Gene De Libero February 18, 2010 at 12:28 am

Finding experts in your company. http://bit.ly/9cN0Z2

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13 Bruce Kneuer February 17, 2010 at 4:08 pm

Gil:
You wrote about “…and staying away from emails that hide conversations.” What if there were a way to add the email “expertise” (embedded in the email content) to the “social” exchanges? If memory serves me here, Oracle purchased a firm (Tacit Software?) about a year ago that had a product that accomplished this. Never had an opportunity to use it (though I would have liked to!). Email seems too rich in content (en masse) to leave aside.

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14 Gil Yehuda February 18, 2010 at 12:31 am

Bruce
It does not surprise me that Oracle owns software that might do something like this, but it is not well known. They own at least one instance of almost every technology out there. But I too have not seen if they have done anything with it.

You raise an interesting point about email. You might think that through some clever mining of email, an algoritm ought to exist that identifies your abilities and expertise. But I never saw any realistinc example of this. And it seems awfully prone to being “gamed” by people who want to pose as experts. I don’t believe we’ll see this ever happen, but I invite anyone to prove me otherwise.

To be clear – what I like about aardvark is not the tool itself (though I think they did a very good job on it). I like the fact that they got the idea right. You get nudged to regularly improve your declaration of expertise. If you can answer questions on a topoc (and the questioner indicates you helped), then you are an expert helper in this topic. And if you don’t want to be bothered with questions about a topic, then you have incentive to stop indicating you are an expert. From a very emperical perspective: you are or are not an expert in something if you do or do not help people who ask about that something. Expertise is a heartbeat of help, not an unproven self-declaration made in the past.

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15 Bruce Kneuer February 19, 2010 at 12:09 pm

Gil:
I had read previously about IBM’s interest in learning what their own email could tell them about social networks and knowledge transfer – it appears that they are still hard at work:
http://www.almaden.ibm.com/cs/disciplines/user/interns/2010/
…We are exploring the use of social and collaboration software within the enterprise, including email, social networks, microblogging, and contact management.
• Bridging the gap between email and social software: Exploring topics such as social features (like tagging and profiles) in email, attention management, and bringing email into social applications.

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16 Gil Yehuda February 19, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Thanks Bruce. I was just speaking to Newsgator and learning about the expertise location capabilities that Microsoft is putting in place for Outlook 2010 along with SharePoint 2010. If you have both (something that will take a while), then they mine your text (if you allow) for noun phrases. Visions of clippy hit my mind as I thought of the pop-up (“Looks like you are answering questions about Tax Law. Would you like me to tag you as a Tax Law expert and have others ask you question too?”). But something like this is in the works. And partners (such as Newsgator) are building enhanced features to the base capabilities to make it work better. I was impressed to learn that Newsgator’s enhancements to SharePoint also leverage other signals of expertise beyond email mining — and I think it speaks to a more refined notion of “subject matter expert”. SME’s are more that people who talk about a topic — they are people who demonstrate value helping others. So yes, expertise location is on the radar in many if not all the major players. I have heard of a couple of good stories where these tools help, but we’re far from this being a mainstream kind of enterprise technology. But we have much to look forward to.

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17 Scott Gavin February 17, 2010 at 5:37 am

Good topic Gil. I included expertise identification in my post ‘Top 3 Benefits of Enterprise 2.0′ http://is.gd/8zjwK last week as it’s getting more and more traction inside big orgs, especially considering they are now trying to do more with less.

One app I work with a lot, Knowledge Plaza, covers expertise identification as seen in the two screenshots below. When the platform was created for a blue chip client 2 years ago, identifying experts for content filtering was near the top of the requirements list and its something I know is being enhanced further in future releases.

1. you always see experts related to content (and can use them as filters)
http://is.gd/8zjI8

2. expert’s profiles contain both their real life interactions with content as well as their ‘self declared’ expertise
http://is.gd/8zjLo

Look forward to your follow up post.

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18 Swan February 14, 2010 at 3:50 pm

Gil,

I have been an aardvark user because I am also curious about how it can help in the ways that you describe. I have yet to ask a question, but I have answered a few and people seem to be satisfied with the answers. :)

I also like the way that LinkedIn Q&A works. It stores the questions and all the answers so that people can get answers to their questions from a knowledgebase possibly before taking up time from a human. Also, the fact that your answers travel with your profile tells a lot about your capabilities.

I would also love to see some social tagging built into the ideal tool. On http://elsua.net, I described my favorite expertise finder that had social tagging.

We will be discussing Expertise Location on #KMers March 30 at 12pm ET moderated by @klowey22. Hope you will join us: http://www.kmers.org/topicsuggestion/expertise-location-latest-greatest-ideas-and-approaches

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19 Dave Scouller February 12, 2010 at 2:54 pm

Interesting concepts on finding experts with Aardvark. Also interested in your views now that they have been snapped up by Google. Wonder if some capability will find its way into Buzz or Wave. Will they take it to the Enterprise?

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20 Gil Yehuda February 13, 2010 at 9:15 pm

Dave, thanks — I wish I knew what their acquisition means too. Wave and Buzz are interesting ideas, but they need to mature – and they are far from mainstream (heck Buzz has not been public for a week yet!). Email is a technology that has enjoyed very little innovation in recent years. And it seems that Google is addressing this in their own platform (since Outlook plug-ins have had a mixed history of success). But as you can imagine — taking consumer products to the enterprise does not just happen. Could it work? maybe. It would be cool. But I’m not betting on it yet.

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21 Samuel Driessen February 12, 2010 at 11:10 am

Thanks for this post. I’ve been writing a bit on this topic on my blog. I don’t believe in the db approach either. Here’s a post about the approaches I see and what I think of them.

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22 Gil Yehuda February 13, 2010 at 8:53 pm

Thanks for the links and comment. I would agree that the problem is hard. But I’m hopeful that what appears to be a frivolous set of games on the internet can inspire people to come up with real business solutions to difficult problems.

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23 Gil Yehuda February 12, 2010 at 9:43 am

Note: Aardvark was just acquired by Google. Time will tell what this means to the service. I hope we’ll see good things come from this news.

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24 Doug Cornelius February 11, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Gil -

Expertise location location is a tough nut. I worked on it for a few years and never could come up with a perfect solution. You might be interested in these old notes from a presentation at the Boston KM Forum: Finding Experts: Who you know matters more than what they know.

Kate Ehrlich from IBM Research offered some really interesting thoughts.

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25 Gil Yehuda February 11, 2010 at 5:28 pm

Doug — wow and thanks for the link. Yes, it’s a tough nut to crack. I also know of a number of failed efforts.

If I understand your notes, that attempt mined your activity — so if you email about UCC a lot, you may be an expert — and this is a faulty assumption. Where Aardvark differs is that you’re expertise is a factor of your ability to respond to questions about the UCC — something that seems to be a better measure of expertise.

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26 Dan Keldsen - Information Architected February 19, 2010 at 1:44 pm

It’s a combination of static and dynamic content that makes useful and sustainable expertise management/location happen. Some static content, such as your resume/CV, combined with various activity/interest indicators, such as e-mail, content creation, re-use, collaboration, blogging, microblogging, Q&A, etc. is how one can build an “information-rich” system to tap in locating experts.

Any single channel to gather this insight is doomed to failure, doesn’t matter whether it’s static or dynamic. And as you mention, Gil, the feedback loops to indicate whether content is used, re-used, enhanced, corrected, etc., is one of the more modern areas to be added on to this.

I started covering this kind of technology in the 2000-2002 timeframe, when people like Tacit (now since acquired), SRD (acquired by IBM), askMe (which still exists, to my astonishment), Contact Networks Corp (acquired by Thomson Reuters) and others were first getting out of the gate.

Unfortunately, as we see time and time again, the ROI for much of the work under the Enterprise 2.0 umbrella is difficult to sell/quantify, and expertise even more so. So, along with prediction markets, even though there is great potential value (if done well), the interest in experts/expertise has been buried under the more broad, and perhaps less valuable in the end, “social watercooler” that many seem to get caught up in.

From time to time I argue that if you flip this upside down, it may be far MORE useful to create a “newbie locator” service, such as new hires, and specifically pair them up with the experts. This can feedback/forward in both directions, as even experts still have more to learn, and a fresh perspective may get them to re-think the subject/problem at hand. Loops, feedback, and that’s right, emergence!

There’s a presentation I gave many times in the 2002-2004 timeframe, and have since update off and on. It’s slightly outdated as far as the possible commercial solutions (since there hasn’t been much direct focus on this, but still, hopefully of some use.

See: Build Smarter Internal and External Communities on communities and networks as Relationship Intelligence (rather than Business Intelligence, etc.).

Relating as well, see Is Enterprise 2.0 = Knowledge Management 2.0? which works in the connection between “old school” KM and Enterprise 2.0, and a fair amount on emergence/loops.

We’ll see what Google does with Aardvark – expect it will remain more consumer-focused in the short-term, but eventually be folded into Google Apps. Depends on how quickly Wave/Buzz become stable and more widely adopted in enterprise settings.

Cheers,
Dan

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