KM Component 35 – Expertise Locators and Ask the Expert

Stan Garfield

Stan Garfield

December 02, 2021

Expertise locators are systems for finding experts on particular subjects, allowing individuals to enter details about what they know and can do, and allowing others to search for all people having desired skills, experience, or knowledge.

Expertise locators are also referred to as:

  1. Employee Profile
  2. Expert Finder
  3. Expertise Location
  4. Expertise Locator System (ELS)
  5. People Directory
  6. People Finder
  7. People Network
  8. Personal Profile
  9. Skills Database
  10. Skills Inventory
  11. Skills Profile
  12. Skills Tracking
  13. Social Profile
  14. Staff Directory
  15. Who’s Who
  16. Yellow Pages

Connecting people so that they can take advantage of the expertise of others is one of the desired modes of knowledge flow in a typical KM program. This can be accomplished in several ways. The organization may be structured by expertise, and if so, the manager of a group of specialists in a specific topic can be contacted with a request for help from that group. Communities of practice span organizational structures to bring together subject-matter experts, and can be tapped for expertise.

Another common method is to create a database of all experts in the organization which can be searched to find those with required expertise. Such tools are usually called skills inventories, expertise locators, or electronic yellow page systems. The challenge with such systems is to get employees to enter and maintain their personal data. Even with mandates from top management to do so, many people do not enjoy this task. As a result, they enter minimal information and don’t keep it updated as they develop new skills.

Information entered in a skills database can include technical knowledge, process expertise, work experience, languages spoken, roles performed, customer and industry experience, community membership, professional organizations, publications, certifications, and so forth. The more details collected, the more can be searched for, but at the cost of complexity and possibly annoying the users who must rate themselves on a multitude of categories.

Social software can help address the challenge of motivating employees to maintain their expertise in a tool. By allowing users to define their own tags for both interests and skills, a folksonomy of expertise can be developed which is less onerous than a massive list of standard skills. If a social networking tool offers other desirable features such as photos, personalized information, and friends, it may draw in users who will also enter and maintain their skills.

Expertise Location Approaches

  1. Expertise Database
    • Self-populated – relies on everyone entering and maintaining their own data, which is difficult to achieve
    • Fed from internal HR systems – limited by what is available in HR systems and by European privacy laws
    • Fed from LinkedIn – benefits from the fact that most people maintain their LinkedIn profiles
  1. Social Software Profile
    • Self tagging/rating – hard to keep maintained, and people may exaggerate their own expertise
    • Peer tagging/rating – may miss some areas of expertise
    • Authoritative designation – may miss some experts and may become bureaucratic
  1. Automated Monitoring/Crawling
    • Email – raises concerns about privacy
    • Threaded discussions – this is better as discussions are generally open, but may not be preferable to just using the discussions directly for expertise location
    • Contributed content and personal files – contributed content is open, but personal files are private
  1. Emergent
    • Communities – can work very well; see below for details
    • Enterprise Social Network (ESN) – similar to communities
    • Email distribution lists – not as efficient or effective as communities or ESN
  1. Formal Resources
    • Center of Excellence or Expertise Center – offers good expertise, but limited by availability
    • Help Desk – offers good availability, but may not provide deep expertise
    • Tier 3 Support – offers in-depth expertise, but limited by availability
  1. Search
    • Contributed content and personal files – see who contributed or created relevant content
    • Production systems and databases – may be limited by security and privacy restrictions
    • Social software – have enterprise search crawl personal profiles and other social tools

Automated detection of experts by scanning their email and files has been tried by several vendors, but it encounters major obstacles. People don’t like the idea of their email and other private documents being monitored by Big Brother, and this prevents such approaches from being accepted.

The best-known public expertise locator is LinkedIn. A good alternative to the burden of creating and maintaining an internal expertise locator is to rely on LinkedIn instead. Most people keep their LinkedIn profiles updated, they already know how to use LinkedIn, and when new people join the organization, there is no lag until their internal profile is populated. Danish pharmaceutical company Lundbeck used the LinkedIn API to develop a clever but very simple device to bring in LinkedIn profile data to act as its internal expertise directory. This not only provided instant rich content but also saved staff considerable time by not having to create and then maintain two overlapping professional profiles. Lundbeck’s LinkedIn connector allowed users to voluntarily import their LinkedIn profile into the internal employee directory and regularly update with any changes. The result was improved expertise location and more up-to-date profiles at virtually zero cost.

Using Communities to Locate Expertise

Community threaded discussions are excellent for locating expertise. If there is already a forum or distribution list for the employees in a specific area of expertise, then it can be used. If not, you can recruit a thought leader, activist, or respected individual to create, launch, build, and maintain such a forum.

In order for such a forum to function as an expertise locator, it should have a critical mass of experts in the topic, an active moderator, and a community norm that questions and requests posted to the forum will receive timely replies. If these criteria are met, then you don’t need to know who the experts are — you just need to know that they belong to the forum, and how to post to it.

Even if you work with HR to create a skills inventory database, you will have a challenge in getting employees to enter their data and then to maintain it. Even in consulting firms where it is in the consultants’ interest in order to stay billable, they tend not to like updating their skills profiles.

If your company already has a training history database, you can use it to see which courses have already been taken and by whom. To develop training plans, you can ask the members of the community for their suggestions and requirements. A combination of collection (databases) and connection (communities) can yield the desired results.

Ask the Expert

An ask the expert system enables asking questions of experts and getting the answers. A process to allow users to ask the expert can be implemented in several ways. It can be done by tapping into a skills inventory or expertise management tool. A standalone tool which allows users to enter questions, routes these to designated experts, and returns answers which are also captured in a database can be developed or obtained.

Another technique is to use existing threaded discussions to reach experts within communities who can reply to questions. This is a typical use of threaded discussions anyway, so adding this capability is simple. To do so, ask the moderator to designate at least two subscribers who are assigned as experts who monitor the threaded discussion. The moderator is usually one of these experts. At least one expert should be on duty every work day. Users can be told to expect an email response within 48 hours with one of the following: the answer to their question, the status of the expert’s search for the answer and when to expect it, or a statement that the answer is unlikely to be provided, but may come from other subscribers. If you use this method, you may not need to implement a separate expertise locator tool.

Ask the Expert is also referred to as Answers, Q&A, or Questions and Answers. The best-known public version is Quora.

Stan Garfield

Stan Garfield

Please enjoy Stan’s additional blog posts offering advice and insights drawn from many years as a KM practitioner. You may also want to download a copy of his book, Proven Practices for Implementing a Knowledge Management Program, from Lucidea Press.  And learn about Lucidea’s  Inmagic Presto and SydneyEnterprise with KM capabilities to support successful knowledge curation and sharing. 

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