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Often the most cost-effective ways to solve a problem is to ask an expert -- someone who has first-hand experience in a similar situation. But such people are usually hard to find -- even if they are willing to share their know-how with others. Furthermore, most of them are too busy to create and update a profile of their continually expanding skills and interests even when an electronic vehicle, such as a corporate "yellow pages," is available. In this article we look at the pros and cons of different software solutions to this problem and describe an example at Mitre Corporation.
1. Human resources software packages such as those from PeopleSoft can store skills for both an individual employee (prospect or contractor) and a particular job description. The skill categories are simple and generic, not particularly useful for finding someone to solve a particular problem.
2. Resume-oriented systems such as those from Resumix enable HR organizations to scan in resumes, extract key words, and compare them with desired skills. These programs are geared toward making the hiring process more efficient, not helping employees find internal experts.
3. Custom skills database, typically a relational database (e.g. Filemaker, Access, Oracle) can be tailored to enable employees to search for employees by education, type of on-the-job expertise, and geography. For example, Hewlett-Packard uses a Web-based system called "Connex" in its R&D laboratories to identify experts.
While more expensive than packaged programs, the cost of custom databases pales beside the effort required to enter and update the data. In addition, there are "cultural" problems, such as getting participants to share information and controversy over the connotation of "expert."
4. Programs that find experts automatically by analyzing the documents they publish or those in which they are mentioned. An example is Mitre Corporation's ExpertFinder program (see below). A primary goal of these systems is to reduce the time required to enter and update employee profiles.
5. Commercial databases such as Lexis/Nexis are used mostly to find external experts through the articles they've published. Easy to access and inexpensive relative to the other software solutions, commercial databases can confer a cache coveted by some experts. In other words, an employee whose value is recognized outside the company is likely to be considered more valuable by colleagues inside the firm.
On the downside, commercial databases can be years out of date due to the delays inherent in the publishing "food chain." Furthermore, a small percentage of experts are willing (or able) to write articles for publications indexed by the database companies and the articles they do provide are often "censored" by a corporate communications department to strip out proprietary information.
6. The World Wide Web telescopes the information "food chain," eliminating publication delays and making it easier for experts to publish their work. For example, according to Fortune magazine, Nolo Press's "self help law center" is so good at what it does that the state of Texas has questioned whether it is practicing law without proper authorization!
However, finding experts with common names (e.g. John Smith) and specialties can very time consuming. Determining their qualifications and/or evaluating their work in the absence of "gatekeepers" such as editors can be difficult.
While each type of software solution has its individual strengths and weaknesses, it is usually a challenge to get them all to work together. For example, many employees use "contact management" programs such as Outlook or ACT! to store contact information for colleagues. A few also use "content management" software to keep track of articles and Web sites. Rarely are the two types of information connected.
7. Messaging systems, which can be as basic as E-mail or as advanced as "groupware" (e.g. Lotus Notes), are used to facilitate communication among groups of experts in "communities of practice" -- self-organized groups generally initiated by employees because they share common work practices, interests, or objectives. A professional association is a "community of practice" for people from different organizations.
Communities of practice are useful because they capture informal, "tacit" know-how and facilitate collaboration. However, they are by definition parochial and easily disrupted by employee transfers, promotions, and downsizing.
Example: Mitre Corporation's ExpertFinder
Although the system is dependent on publications by or about an expert (less than half of potential experts publish documents), it eliminates separate steps for entering and updating employee profiles. How well does it work? A recent internal study performed under the direction of Dr. Mark Maybury found that the system did a reasonably good job of finding an expert with one phone call. In other words, even if the people identified by ExpertFinder weren't experts, they could provide the name of someone who was. In most cases, results from the program were similar to those achieved by a test group of human beings.
Maybury reports that the system worked remarkably well except on the topics of network security and collaboration -- because they use specialized collaborative software that was not queried by the data mining program. Another interesting anomaly was that since secretaries published many documents for the executives they work for, they -- not the executive -- were identified as experts.
Tapping expert know how
Role of knowledge stewards
Software solutions can help reduce the cost of compiling and finding information on who knows what. In a future article, we'll explore further the human side of the equation, including: