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Panning for gold

Expertise management turns the training concept inside-out. Expertise management feature hed: Panning for gold dek: Expertise management turns the training concept inside-out. dek: You can have onsite expertise without even knowing it.

Conventionally, the training role of human resources departments has been about planting knowledge into employees’ heads. You hire people to do the job; you train them in basic and intermediate skills; and you sit back and let the newly trained workers put the knowledge to work. It’s a good system. But a contrary approach to knowledge management is emerging, one that seeks to identify knowledge that employees already have, and to deploy that knowledge in order to win new customers, improve cycle times, and create new businesses. It’s called expertise management.

Say you’re personnel manager for ABC, a financial services corporation. A sales manager has brought you a challenge that could mean millions of dollars in new revenue for the company. XYZ Co., a major customer, wants to create a rollover service for new employees, allowing them to convert retirement funds from previous jobs into ABC’s fund family. Problem: XYZ is scattered across 18 countries, with language barriers and different regulations governing international transactions in each. How soon can you create a service bureau to solve this problem?

Conventional thinking would have you get on the phone, make several dozen calls until you locate a training firm that has experience in international fund rollovers, have them train a team in the new skills required, and possibly travel abroad to several customer sites to train people at that end. It’ll be an expensive undertaking, both in dollars and in time. ABC might look at the time and expense involved and tell XYZ Co. to take a hike. Ouch.

But consider this approach. As soon as you know of the need, you consult your online database of organizational expertise, or knowledgebase–a hot-linked directory of who knows what in your organization. It lists every client each has worked with, every skill developed on every project, all the academic knowledge gleaned from continuing education and in-service seminars, plus miscellaneous skills such as languages spoken and even hobbies. Best of all, it is maintained by the individuals themselves, with some supervision to dampen self-promotion.

It turns out that there are 19 people already in your organization who have either worked on this kind of problem at previous jobs, or who have a piece of the puzzle from their current jobs. Together, this group has the knowledge to mount a speedy response to the customer request. It took you a half an hour to find them, and the cost of teaming them up for a one-shot project will be very manageable. In turn, they can train other teams and be available as coaches on an ongoing basis. Most important, you retain a valuable customer instead of providing a reason to go elsewhere.

There are two nasty truths about skill knowledge: It’s expensive to inculcate, and often hard to find. If a company can find existing knowledge already in its ranks, it won’t have to shell out big bucks to create new knowledge. In many organizations, expertise management is turning the training concept inside out.

Expertise management does not make conventional training obsolete–not by a long shot. Its proper realm is providing high-end knowledge solutions, such as new product ideas and fixes for esoteric client problems, precisely because that kind of knowledge is rare. And until now, with the development of new-generation talent databases, it was impossible to find. Readily available training, on the other hand, relates to more generic skills. This makes sense because training providers can’t make money in tight niches.

The trick with expertise management is in taking information that used to be hidden–even hoarded–and making it available across company boundaries, so that everyone in an organization can contribute to it and tap into it. Currently, this is happening most often through printed directories (an OK solution, but quickly out of date) and cross-indexed online directories (better, because everyone in the directory is involved in maintenance).

Different companies are doing it in different ways. Some maintain modest, inexpensive menus of skills. Other companies are attacking expertise management in a bigger way, constructing deep knowledgebases that chronicle every client interaction, with a specific context for each. These companies are brave, because standards for expertise databases have not been established, and there is much debate about how much to commit to the new approach. But if expertise management is the revolutionary new organizing principle some think it is, these early adapters will have a big lead on the rest of us.

The expert rationale

Imagine you are running a temp agency, and your revenues are 100 percent linked to the skills of your contractees. A knowledgebase allows you to identify specific skills and experiences that go way beyond the help-wanted listings in the paper.

Think of the inefficiency at the typical Fortune 500 company, losing an estimated $64 million annually because of ineffective knowledge management. AskMe Corp., an online expert service based in Seattle, estimates that 50 percent of knowledge-worker time is spent looking up information; 7 to 20 percent of each employee’s time is spent replicating answers for others; and less than 20 percent of workers’ skills are ever put to use.

Consider the suffering of the typical HR manager, trying to wring the most out of a shrinking training budget when the most-needed, most-valuable knowledge is already sitting untapped at company desks. How can you spend money on training when you aren’t certain what you already know?

Drilling for knowledge

Expertise management sounds good. But how do you get started? First, understand that you already have at your fingertips a tremendous amount of information about who knows what.

Start with Rolodexes, Yellow Pages, project files, resumés, memos, and other organizational documents. An organization’s R&D files also can be excellent starting points. Other places to check are best-practice studies compiled across your organization. Expertise readily available at one location in your organization can then be made available at others as well.

When Schlumberger Ltd., the international provider of oil-field and business services to the petroleum industry, first decided to find out what it knew, it had a mountain of professional knowledge already within its grasp. The information was gleaned from the archives of the company’s networked bulletin boards, where thousands of field situations had been discussed and resolved by experts, says Reid Smith, vice president of knowledge management at Schlumberger.

That was just the beginning. Schlumberger took that data and used it as the foundation for an intranet Web portal called the Schlumberger Knowledge Hub. It’s a one-stop shop that combines browsing and search features to help personnel drill down to the information they need to do their jobs. In addition, the company has a single Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) directory. Not only can personnel find phone numbers and addresses for people whose names they recognize, they can also search for anybody in the company with expertise and experiences that may help them solve problems. Know who is often as important in this realm as know what and know how.

At the end of this knowledge chain are Schlumberger’s “communities of practice”–groups of professionals who make up a hive of knowledge about specific topics, such as deep-water drilling, horizontal drilling, and deviated wells. In the course of day-to-day work, a given community member can be expected to share much of what he knows with his immediate team. As part of their mission, these professionals keep the online database up to date, so that people across the company can find them when they need them.

Managing knowledge vs. documents

There is no shortage of software packages available for identifying expertise. They all fall into the category of knowledge management–a superset of expertise management.

“There are products like Orbital, Tacit Knowledge, AskMe, and Abuzz that can help you profile organizational knowledge,” says Jon Powell of the New York city-based e-business consultancy Plural. “Tacit Knowledge examines your e-mail to analyze what you know. Abuzz tracks all your interactions with the system. AskMe looks at the whole body of interactions to create a profile on you.”

But knowledge management experts warn that document management by itself is an illusory approach. “Most software that describes itself as knowledge management is actually document management,” says David Coleman, managing director of Collaborative Strategies Inc., a consultancy based in San Francisco. “Only a few deal with more than content or keyword searches. When they move beyond content to context, then they will doing true knowledge management.”

Right now, the big mistake many HR departments make is to focus too much on the outward product–the document. Better to think of the document as a momentary bookmark for the real, less tangible product–the improved and continuing sense of what your company’s people can do. Without this mindset, you will likely spend too much money on software, and not enough on the planning, defining, and data gathering that makes the software useful.

The last thing you want is another obsolescent phone book. Remember that what you are after is not a reference work that may or may not point you toward a solution, but the actual solutions. “Remember that when you seek to assess expertise, you aren’t trying to build a library,” Smith says. “You should be on the lookout for those levels of expertise that make the most sense for the businesses your organization is in.”

Smarter intelligence

Few organizations can better defend their need for rapidly identifying and appropriating expertise than the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), with its two missions, foreign-signals intelligence and national information systems security.

Most organizations design expertise searches around project knowledge–who has done what. Project Spectrum, designed jointly by NSA and the American Institutes for Research in the Behavioral Sciences, sought to create an expertise management tool based on both knowledge and skills. Anne Wright, manager of NSA’s National Cryptologic School in Bethesda, Md., describes the difference as static versus active: Knowledge is passive and must be digested, but skills are ready to be put into action on a moment’s notice.

It was a significant technological challenge, and Wright and her colleagues quickly learned that off-the-shelf software was not up to the task. Realizing that they would have to customize a program to meet their demands was a big step for them, and an expensive one.

“A large part of our searches is for language capabilities,” Wright says. “We may need to find someone on a moment’s notice who not only speaks a certain language but also has knowledge of a specific area or problem.” This is something NSA was unable to do before Project Spectrum, except by using informal, catch-as-catch-can analog tools such as directories. But by using the intranet-based Skills Map database, which is supported and maintained by the agency’s skill communities, NSA can cross-link different kinds of knowledge and skills and identify the ideal person for a very specific assignment within minutes.

Rewarding the sharers

What are the payoffs for sharing expertise? Not everyone wants to be an expert. Once you get past the initial ego stroke, being on call to an entire organization can be a dreary prospect.

Says Richard McDermott, a knowledge-management consultant based in Boulder, Colo.: “Many experts’ greatest concern about Yellow Pages and other locator software is that they will be swamped with basic questions. So they often ‘hide out.'”

Whatever knowledge management solution a company creates must both coax these experts from their hiding places and make it safe (and efficient) for them to share. Some companies offer prizes for sharing information and create point systems for collaborative efforts. Workers selling billable hours can list a new skill to bill for.

At the other end of the spectrum, some experts find they like sharing what they know, and change careers from doing to teaching. “Occasionally,” says Susan Hanley of Plural, “a worker’s job changes so much that providing expertise becomes as significant a part of the job as the tasks in the original job description.”

Of course, automating one’s expertise relieves the expert of the odious task of repetition. Fewer phone calls and having to repeat himself or herself less often means the relief is the reward.

But that’s the challenge of expertise management. Find a way to do it right for your organization, enthusiasts claim, and you will quintuple your staff’s profitability. Attempt it generically, however, with currently available off-the-shelf tools, and you’re less likely to have success. To have the best chance for success, focus on the people-end of the equation.

So will training and expertise management merge any time soon? For the moment, expertise management is the province of knowledge management, which is a high-level IT function, whereas training is more of a down-in-the-trenches function. Also, knowledge management deals with specialized skills needed in particular organizations. Training concerns itself with general skills needed by everyone carrying certain job descriptions.

But the day is coming when people in training seize expertise management for themselves. They will have to. Budgets will no longer allow companies to squander their most lucrative resource–their people.

Columnist Michael Finley is co-author of “The New Why Teams Don’t Work” from Berrett-Koehler.

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