The more I work with highly technical teams outside support, the more I am convinced that I am wrong.
I’ve been talking to a lot of companies who share a common concern. They have a strong commitment to their knowledge program at the executive level. The front-line team has bought in. Even the managers are “getting it.” The challenges to the knowledge program are coming from the longest-tenured, deep experts. Big companies, small companies—the complaints are the same. The quality isn’t right. The answers are too simple. Our products/services are much too complex to be captured in a simple knowledge article.
For a long time, I have said that the challenges made by experts are solved with communication and persuasion. The most senior, most knowledgeable people see sharing knowledge as a risky move. They know the most and, maybe, some experts see their deep knowledge of products, services and processes as their key asset to the company. So, you have to convince them that sharing their knowledge will reduce the number of interruptions. Keep the front-line team at bay. Give them more time for complicated work.
Very senior team members in companies that have very complex products or services aren’t complaining because they are worried. They aren’t complaining because they don’t want to change (ok, maybe a little of that).
They are complaining because the knowledge they need and the way they use it is different.
I found a great clue in the way that I have been able to sell experts on knowledge programs – more contributions to the repository equals more time for complicated work.
For front-line team members who handle questions, projects or tasks with less complexity, their problem is getting to the knowledge they need when they need it. It might be a procedure, a plan or an answer, but it completes the task they are working on. Connecting to the right knowledge is an end-point for these team members.
For experts, the knowledge itself is just a starting point, a means to the end that they are going to achieve. Their role is to synthesize knowledge in a meaningful way, apply it to a new situation or create brand-new knowledge. Experts aggregate, curate and originate knowledge.
Because their use is different, the content of the knowledge experts need is different, as well. It’s not enough to know what the answer to a problem is. For an expert, it is at least equally important (perhaps more important) to know how another expert arrived at the problem. Or what component of a product or service was involved in the problem or project. And, likely, which other experts worked on similar types of issues.
For front-line team members, the context of an article is built for the person who is asking them a question or needing access to a procedure. That’s why lots of us in the KM world talk about building knowledge with the customer in mind (even using the customer’s words to title knowledge makes it easier to find and consume.
For experts, they will consume each other’s content. So what makes knowledge easier to find is their context. The words other experts would use. Acronyms. Highly technical language. The experts might even have to rebuild knowledge for others to reuse because the content they need can be confusing or even incomprehensible to non-experts.
What are the implications for knowledge tools and practices?
There are three important implications for the expert use and content of knowledge.
- Templates for knowledge experts must be different. They must include more information than any templates we create for front-line team members. The content they are concerned about is much more about the process of how the knowledge is generated than the knowledge itself.
- Searches should deliver results that are broader, but associated with the intended target knowledge. Think about the ability to work across knowledge family trees, with branches that connect similar projects, policies or solutions.
- The patterns of knowledge consumption will be different for experts than for team members whose primary function is to connect people with knowledge. Team members who connect people with knowledge with search with the same frequency that they spin up projects, lead others through procedures or answer questions. Experts will look to knowledge less frequently but more intensely. They use knowledge as a starting point, so need to access more at the beginning of their work cycle and go back to it when they encounter something unexpected.
So why are these implications important? Simply put, if we apply the same approach to sharing to knowledge to experts as to those whose job is to connect people with knowledge, the experts will always be frustrated. Not only because they are resistant to a new or rebuilt knowledge program (which they might be), but because it will not serve their needs.
Organizations must understand the experts on their teams. What kind of knowledge they need. What links knowledge together. When and how they consume knowledge.
Or, organizations can continue on as they have and run the risk of experts derailing, or impeding, their knowledge program down the line.