In today's fast-paced business world, few of us have time to thoroughly learn a new subject on our own. To respond quickly to shifting markets, both individuals and organizations need an easy way to locate an in-house expert in a particular domain and tap their knowledge.
Typically, we look for experts by searching Rolodexes, yellow pages, project files, memos and other documents at hand. We ask friends and colleagues what they know and who they know. We search the Web. But often these methods don't unearth the precise knowledge we need or lead us to the people who have it.
In small companies, finding experts can be as simple as tossing a question over the cubicle wall. But at companies that have tens of thousands or more employees, sheer numbers and distance can conceal experts. The company then has to create a means to identify its experts and enable them to share their knowledge in response to mission-critical queries.
For an organization already disposed to sharing, the process may be relatively straightforward. At Clarica Life Insurance Co. of Waterloo, Ontario, the second-largest life insurance provider in Canada with 5,000 employees and 3,000 agent members, the same questions come up repeatedly at its call center. After developing an archive of answers for these frequently asked questions, Clarica wanted to take the next step by ensuring that employees could easily find experts to answer questions not covered in the archive. The company used software from AskMe Corp. to profile each employee's expertise.
"You can run a search or go through our category chain to find topics where people have signed up to give answers," says Hubert Saint-Onge, Clarica's senior vice president of strategic capabilities. "You can click on those people's profiles and submit a question or business problem."
Hitting a Wall
Other companies discover that new technology alone won't identify experts or help employees get answers fast. Employees and partners must understand why sharing is important and be willing to do it.
The Bank of Montreal is Canada's oldest bank and has 32,000 employees around the world. Its managers recognize that there is value in tapping the company's intellectual assets, says Sasha Zupansky, a knowledge architect for the bank. "We want to find the experts in our own company."
To begin this process, the bank wanted to create communities of practice and looked for software to help. "We searched for technologies that could support communities of practice, capture knowledge and make it accessible to others in search of expertise," Zupansky recalls.
In a pilot program, the bank launched two communities, using commercially available tools that Zupansky declines to name. It built an e-business community for employees developing the company's Internet environments and another for electronic banking sales representatives. But few employees chose to join the opt-in program, says Zupansky.
Community involvement is unfamiliar ground, he adds. "Sending an e-mail that goes to a person, we can relate to. Sending an e-mail to software is not so engaging."
Without explaining to people how the system would benefit them in the long run, the communities' implementers were unable to overcome employees' preferences to find answers through existing means. Instead of encouraging experts to take part in the connected communities the company was trying to establish, executives stuck with proven methods of interaction like cell phones and pagers, Zupansky says. "It's the path of least resistance."
Nine months after launching the system, the e-business community now has 300 members, and the electronic banking community has 100 members. But for the most part, employees still prefer to turn to others whom they know rather than to submit queries to the less personal forum of the online community.
Now the bank is addressing cultural issues such as this. Zupansky says the company did not invest the time and effort required to develop a community attitude of willing participation. "Expertise location is not a technology solution. It merely facilitates locating the right people who have knowledge you are seeking."
Drilling for Answers
Some companies face challenges involving so many variables that only a combination of input from several experts can provide a solution. When members of the culture are prepared to help each other, even this is possible.
Energy supplier Schlumberger Ltd. deploys 50,000
employees worldwide. Its field engineers, which work in a variety of geographical locations and physical plants, need daily
access to knowledge related to exploring for and producing oil and gas. Schlumberger knew from experience that it had among its workers experts with knowledge relevant to almost every situation. The challenge was to find them quickly, then use their knowledge to solve problems and avoid delays in expensive exploration and production operations.
"How do you find the answer to a problem you haven't faced before?" asks Reid Smith, vice president of knowledge management at Schlumberger in Sugar Land, Texas. "For example, if you want to drill a directional well in a tricky formation, what are the things to look out for?"
Schlumberger launched a three-phase program to identify experts and make their knowledge globally available. It began by focusing on directional drilling, a technique used to drill oil wells where the target rock formation (one believed to contain oil) is located at an angle from the drilling apparatus instead of straight down beneath it.
The company created a simple online bulletin board system (BBS) where engineers recounted problems and asked for help. This homegrown solution, driven by a business need, generated an ad hoc community of practice.
A community of practice is usually a forum in which professional peers share insights with and pose questions to each other. It can function through informal gatherings or a simple message thread posted on the Internet. With encouragement, communities can become a venue for sharing expertise.
"Suppose you have a problem in trying to drill a particular well," says Smith. "A common thing to do is to send a message to that bulletin board and ask for help. The culture of our people is such that they will respond."
The Next Level
Schlumberger wanted to go farther in using the valuable knowledge that had collected in this ad hoc community of practice. To do so, it decided to mine and organize what had accumulated on the bulletin boards. Chuck Martin, designated as the oil services knowledge champion, led the effort.
First, Martin found everything that had been published on the BBS about directional drilling. Next, he organized it in a way that made sense to the community of users; the result was a directional drilling knowledge portal. Then he looked deeper into the material for messages that summarized the problem and offered a solution, which he passed to Schlumberger's directional drilling experts to assess. Consulting a benchmarking study on how to capture, validate and publish best practices, Martin produced solutions aimed at generating positive results.
In the final phase, Martin identified directional drilling experts around the world, who now are part of a larger group of experts that Schlumberger calls geo-market knowledge champions. These experts evangelize their local communities, encouraging other directional drillers to use the system and contribute to it.
Pleased by results of the trial with the first community, Schlumberger expanded the project to its entire oilfield services group. "Almost two years later, we have rolled out a relatively large program we call InTouch," says Smith. "It puts the field directly in touch with dedicated experts and corporate-wide operational knowledge. The experts man service help desks and are the knowledge brokers of their communities. The system includes ticketing and validation workflows, personalization and distance learning capabilities. It's used by all field operations staff."
Smith reports that the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Previously, an engineer who had a problem would send a message to his boss, who would send a message to another boss, who would send a message to a field worker who might have a solution. That solution then would filter back through the organizational chain. "It used to take forever to get a response to a problem," says Smith. "Now the engineer can look up a problem in the knowledge repository. If that doesn't work, he can go to the help desk, which is manned by 180 people around the world. Their job is to get you an answer."
The Schlumberger system has produced tangible results. One metric used to determine how well the program worked was how quickly problems were being resolved; resolution time dropped dramatically. Efficiency savings exceed $10 million, according to Smith. "We bet the business on this," he says. The gamble paid off.
While off-the-shelf technology can provide a platform for identifying experts, it alone cannot get people to share their expertise. The key ingredient is a corporate culture that supports knowledge sharing as a positive value and fosters consultation across lines of authority and organization charts. Companies that effectively address these issues are most likely to succeed.