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Expertise Management 101

Stop reinventing the wheel.

It’s been decades since Peter Drucker advanced the notion that the most important requirement for future success wouldn’t be market share, or entrepreneurial leadership, even oodles of investment capital–it would be the knowledge that exists in the brains of the people within the enterprise.

We all nodded wisely, and thought we understood Drucker’s point: hire and retain good people!

But that wasn’t the point at all. Not everyone can hire the best–but what if we could get the most out of the talent we have by transfusing their knowledge to others?

Large organizations have tremendous reservoirs of valuable know-how, but no effective way to share that knowledge from one end of the organization to another. A drilling company’s crews in Aberdeen must constantly reinvent processes that its crews in Canada and Kuala Lumpur long ago figured out on their own. Over and over and over again, we are all constantly reinventing the wheel.

Oh, we have some primitive ways of spreading knowledge companywide–newsletters, resumé files, trade publications, and huge credenzas aching from the weight of published reports. But there’s so much to know that a credenza full of all of it would crash through the floor all the way through the earth’s crust to its hot magma core.

Which is where expertise management comes in. No, no credenza in the world can hold that much information. But a carefully constructed Intranet-based database site with lots of hotlinks can act as a kind of multimedia expertise encyclopedia.

Just type in whatever you need to know (“How do I make a dovetail joint?”) and the database rounds up everyone in the company who knows anything about dovetail joints. It tells you further who is a dovetail joint theorist, who merely studied dovetail joints in grad school (and what grades they got), and who works on dovetail joints all the livelong day, every day.

Thousands of companies have devised expertise systems this intricate and this effective. Many of them use off-the-shelf software and data platforms with names like Orbital, Tacit Knowledge, AskMe, and Abuzz to build and deepen the Yellow Pages of online information.

Once the electronic directory exists, it can be maintained by human communities of practice within the organization–groups of professionals who care passionately about specific topics and processes, and who want to make sure the latest ideas are available company wide.

If you are still with me, you are thinking that this kind of access changes the way organizations work. In the not too distant past, knowledge represented power, and was something to be hoarded. Think of IT in their white jackets, presiding over technology like priests pledged to silence.

But today, organizations are finally getting the idea that knowledge creates the most value only when it is transparent and permeable across corporate membranes.

I wrote an article about expertise management last week for Knowledge Management Magazine, and the idea is still humming in my head. I talked to a dozen pioneers in this field, and what they showed me convinces me that even lumbering old companies that have maintained cultures of hoarding and secrecy have a powerful antidote at hand.

Using off-the-shelf products, you can fashion an inexpensive electronic directory that points knowledge seekers toward knowledge possessers. As my colleague Nelson King recently pointed out, the hang-up with such directories is the source of their power–the people listed. Current experts may still have the hoard mentality. Or they may be afraid that if they are listed in an online directory, they will be on the phone explaining what they know all the time, instead of working. Or the system may be so mechanistic, like so many online instruction bases today, that no one who is serious wants to use it.

The solution to these worries may be better, deeper programming. At a substantially greater investment, you can conceivably create an AI-driven expertise management system tailored to optimize your entire business. With such a system your star employees no longer have to do all the heavy lifting, because the system inhales their knowledge and exhales it to the knowledge-seeker. Instead of pointing you toward the expert, the system explains to you, using text, voice, and video, to whatever depth of understanding you may require, how to do the thing you don’t know.

For example, healthcare. Imagine that you are a good brain surgeon who has never performed a certain advanced procedure. You consult with the online task instructions, prepared with the help of the health center’s most brilliant brain surgeon, and without a human mentor around, you confidently make the initial incision.

OK, not such a great example if you are identifying with the person whose brain is being cut into. But hospitals need to train good surgeons to be even better ones, and to free great surgeons up from the deluge of teaching tasks. Expertise management makes us all better surgeons.

ComputerUser ColumnistMichael Finley also writes Diversions monthly for ComputerUser magazine.

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