I’ve never been deep-sea fishing, but it has always fascinated me. Less than an hour away from New Orleans deep-sea fishermen launch their boats into the Gulf of Mexico. Deep-sea fishing take a lot of knowledge, preparation and patience, but the pay-off is equally big. The fishermen know where the biggest fish are and what tools they require to bring them in (and make their living helping people with both). In their realm, deep-sea fishermen are the experts.

In an earlier post, I suggested that experts need and use knowledge differently. The questions they answer are more complex, requiring them to go beyond the boundaries of a knowledge article (or even a few articles). Several companies have developed expertise systems for this purpose. Expertise systems provide a catalog of experts, their areas of expertise and easy ways to get in contact with them (a great explanation of expertise systems can be found here). The systems are intended to reduce the time (and cost) for experts to find one another. An example of an expertise system is the Community of Science Pivot System run by ProQuest (unfortunately, you have to have a login to see it in practice, but the FAQ gives you the gist).

While this traditional use of expertise systems can have an impact on the time to connect experts to ideas, expanding it can be even more valuable. If we add simple, marked-up resources that these experts use (like a set of curated bookmarks), then the power of expertise systems grows significantly.

So what is the purpose of these systems?

This broader understanding of expertise systems then reduces the time (and cost) of finding experts and curating/creating knowledge, not just the content of the knowledge itself. Experts use knowledge as raw materials for finding, synthesizing and creating new projects, solutions or procedures. The faster the expert can assemble her raw materials, the sooner she can start tackling the more difficult (and more fulfilling) part of her work.

Are knowledge-sharing practices applicable?

If knowledge-sharing practices are about reducing the gap (in time and space) between knowledge and the people who need it, then these practices absolutely apply to expertise systems. The key to making experts more productive is to get them all the raw materials they need more quickly to start the difficult part of their work (curating, synthesizing and creating knowledge).

Where knowledge sharing (as I understand it) fits with expertise systems is the notion that sharing knowledge must become habitual. It has to be part of how things are done on a daily basis. In the case of expertise systems, that means that the experts need to search their system, contribute to it when required and make improvements when they see opportunities to do so.

Organizations can’t leave this to informal, “recommended” practices for experts. Informal systems work well in small, highly motivated teams. In them, there is enough social pressure to sustain an informal habit. Larger, more complex organizations require formal communications and metrics that reinforce the value and importance of sustained creation and improvement of the expertise system. Without them, competing priorities with metrics or formal reinforcement will trump contributions to the expertise system. We see this behavior in socially provisioned help forums (and open-source development projects). A small minority contributes to the benefit of all, but the organization needs to tap the silent majority as significant value is being lost when they are silent.

At the very least, knowledge-sharing practices would suggest that leadership ensure that they consistently reinforce the value of participation in the expertise systems. Recognition programs (as Microsoft has found with the MVP program) can be valuable. My experiences with Communities of Practice (CoP) also demonstrate the need for a great deal of care and feeding for these groups of experts. One group in particular – a CoP for centralized identity management across systems – would seem to attract its audience simply because of the scope and technologies involved. What I found is that many members said they would not have come without the promise of lunch.

Knowledge-sharing practices for experts may look a bit different than other types of knowledge sharing, but the organizational work that it takes to support them is very similar. Measures, training and consistent communication reinforce the importance of contributing and reusing knowledge in expertise systems.

Do you have an expertise system? If so, how do you encourage, recognize and support participation in it?

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