expertise finder
How can we ever hope to produce effective Expertise Finders when we can’t even get people in our own organizations to keep their personal information up to date? That’s a question many professional services organizations ask constantly — the simple internal process of putting together a business proposal, solving a problem or assembling a project team is often, nightmarishly,

  • inefficient (takes too long),
  • ineffective (often doesn’t identify the best people for the project/problem),
  • unduly subjective (people pick people they like to work with over people who are better suited),
  • arbitrary (people may be selected because they are under-assigned or located physically close to the customer, even if they are really inappropriate choices for the task), and
  • unreliable (not only is the information on which the selection is made usually outdated and incomplete, it’s often inaccurate, self-aggrandizing and unverified).

How even more hopeless, then, is the dream of developing an Expertise Finder that will find the best experts in the context of a particular project need outside the organization, where the data is even less structured, the content even less complete and less verifiable, and the internal tools don’t work.

A decade ago I read a prediction that, by today, the Internet would have spontaneously (by a self-managed process) developed a database of every consultant in the world and a verification system to go along with it, so the big consultancies would all collapse, and customers would essentially pick their own consultant teams person-by-person, not limiting themselves to the employees of any one consulting organization. This hasn’t really happened, because normally the customer picks only a project leader, a consultant (usually in a big consultancy but sometimes an internal person or even an outsourcer) who they then trust to assemble the rest of the project team. If the work’s done well, the consultant will be rewarded for his/her choices, but no one really second-guesses those choices or the deeply flawed, sub-optimal way he/she makes them. We use similar processes to assemble project teams of other types of experts: We pick our GP but rely on him/her to refer us to specialists, and we pick a general contractor and usually rely on him/her to pick the subcontractors, for example. The process is fraught with the same suboptimization described in the bullets above.

The traditional IT approach to building such a database doesn’t work. It entails designing a form, a template of all the data elements about each expert that might possibly apply, and then forcing people to fill in and keep up-to-date all the relevant fields. That’s essentially how most social software works, too, and it’s proven terribly unsatisfactory.

Last year I envisioned an Expertise Finder that would work by crawling people’s blog content, penetrating corporate firewalls to find the best people in the world who had the desired expertise and creating a ‘map’ showing the most direct network path to those people (see sketch above) and how much their expertise costs. I expected that the technology gurus and Googles of the world would be able to build such a ‘search’ tool quite easily, and the real challenge would be getting the content, getting people to ‘buy in’ and post information about their expertise, and getting corporations to allow outside customers access to this information from their internal systems (or put a mirror copy on the public Internet). But so far all we have are Ryze and LinkedIn and eCademy (with its well-intentioned ‘b2b Marketplace’ and Google’s Orkut, and they don’t work that way at all — they take the traditional ‘form-filling’ approach, and are better suited to finding work colleagues (or dates!) than either suppliers or experts.

The groups hoping and trying to develop such tools are sanguine of these challenges. Designers appreciate that information needs to be captured in (or converted to) a format useful to the expertise-seeker, which is not necessarily the same format in which the expert normally posts, or finds easiest to post, his or her expertise. And everyone appreciates that trustworthiness of the content and the tool are paramount.
What do you think?

  • About the expertise finder design process: If someone were to just put up a large empty ‘space’ and encourage a large-enough group of experts and expertise-seekers to work together, in time would the right solution evolve organically? Or would this just produce a lowest common denominator solution that would satisfy no one and not be used?
  • About verifying expertise: Is the pathway to the expert, the n degrees of separation between the expertise-seeker and an identified expert important, so that the expertise-seeker can ‘qualify’ the expert through the intermediary contacts he/she trusts? How else can the degree of expertise of an individual in a particular subject be intelligently and objectively verified, short of wading through long recommendation letters?
  • About making the system trustworthy: Can we ever hope to supplant the tedious but effective process of picking up the phone and asking someone you trust “Who do you know who’s an expert in X“? Can a computerized system be designed to mimic this person-to-person process?
  • About building in expertise selection trade-offs: How do you factor in the availability and cost of experts along with the congruence between their expertise and what the expertise-seeker needs?
  • About the role of blogs and other documented expert knowledge: In what situations does it make sense to show expertise-seekers samples of the work done by experts, both to qualify them and (in some cases) to obviate or reduce the need to talk to them directly? Can you foresee people ever paying money for documented knowledge without actually conversing with the expert directly?

I continue to believe that there is a tremendous need for a high-quality expertise finder, a new and very different type of search tool from the tools that merely search data. And I believe that both the technical and cultural challenges can be solved. But I no longer believe that the development of expertise finders is inevitable, nor that they can be developed in the ‘laboratory’. They’re going to need, I think, a lot of bright minds asking a lot of ‘what if’ questions, working together iteratively and allowing the design to evolve. And they’re going to need a lot more out-of-the-box thinking, radically innovative thinking, if they hope to meet users’ needs and expectations. But the payback for success could be enormous.

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  1. One of the biggest problems I see with the recruitment process, either for full-time employees or contracts, is that there is too much focus on ‘buzz’ words and years of experience. What gets missed is the persons raw abilities and ‘transferrable’ skills. My gut tells me that automatic blog/web scanners will just add to the problem.For example, in many situations someone with 2 years of related experience (but not a perfect experience match) who is eager, energetic, enthused, highly intelligent and analytical, with a high learning capacity would be a much better employee or contractor than someone with 12 years experience exactly related to the position just looking for a steady job to pay the bills. The guy with 2 years of related experience might take a bit of “ramp up” time but he probably comes cheaper and his eagerness, enthusiasm and higher intelligence level means that once you get past the learning curve you will have a much better employee.I believe this because I have experienced it. I have been rejected for jobs because I only matched, for example, 5 of 6 buzz words. The HR representative wasn’t qualified to evaluate me and eliminated me because I didn’t match the buzz words the project leader gave her. I am probably a bit biased but I am confident that I could have quickly learned (I am an extremely quick learner) that 6th buzz word and would probably end up being a highly valuable employee and probably more valuable that the employee they ended up hiring.Can a blog/web search tool pick up these more general abilities and aptitudes? I have my doubts. Computers aren’t that great at evaluating unquantifiable things.

  2. Tris Hussey says:

    I think the fundamental problem with trying to acheive this is that people tend to trust those in their “circle” or those who are trusted by those within the circle. As much as I laud the concept, a lot of the choices we make are based on the factors like personality and “fit”.Now I also agree with David’s comment about HR manager’s etc, only looking at the “buzz words”. There is a lot of reluctance to take a chance on someone who doesn’t hit all the numbers.

  3. Ben koot says:

    Dave, A colleague I met through a conference about, the community softeware I am using for my endeavours, pointed me to . Competitiveness experience and work method is a reference in well-known publications. Competitiveness leads the cluster community good practices around the world through the foundation and active involvement in The Competitiveness Institute, a network of 250 members from more than 40 countries. I havn’t had time to study their model, but it looks interesting. cheersBen

  4. Ben koot says:

    Here’s a shortcut on the concept … Global Growth with an Industrial Model What Cluster Competitiveness has created is essentially a new, IT-enabled solution to a very old problem. Only a couple of centuries ago, masters of a trade still spent seven years training an apprentice, knowing full well that the young craftsman would strike out on his own one day. For a while, the master benefited from some rather cheap labor (and didn’t have to worry about headhunters). But the most critical work still fell to the boss, and just when the youngster had acquired nearly all the skills to handle any task, those skills walked out the door. Because Cluster Competitiveness has designed a system to capture all its IC and prevent individual hoarding, it stands to lose less when someone leaves, and it can provide its new arrivals with easier and fuller access to the company’s collective knowledge. Duch says the learning curve has flattened significantly: Measured training capacity has risen 100 percent over the past four years. “It would have been absolutely impossible to learn and act on the company’s methodology without the electronic approach,” says Alfredo García, a senior consultant who has been at the company for just one year. “The alternative would have been to learn the phases side by side with an experienced consultant, and this represents more than six months of time ‘lost.'”

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    David: I agree. The idea of expertise finders is less oriented to recruitment than to quick, one-off advice-seeking, either at no cost (people internal in the company) or modest cost ($100-$1000 for an hour to a day’s work) — based on Surowiecki’s view in The Wisdom of Crowds that the more people you poll before making a decision or trying to solve a problem the better the result is likely to be.Tris: Trusted circles work well for senior execs, who have and can afford to tap into them. Expertise finders are needed more by front-line people who need an expert answer to a particular problem, answered in context, quickly.Ben: An interesting idea, but problematic: attempts to capture knowledge in central databases has been plagued by the lack of context of ‘codified’ knowledge, context that can only be appreciated through conversations with real live people who have workd on similar problems — exactly what expertise finders are designed to find.

  6. “An interesting idea, but problematic: attempts to capture knowledge in central databases has been plagued by the lack of context of ‘codified’ knowledge, context that can only be appreciated through conversations with real live people who have workd on similar problems — exactly what expertise finders are designed to find.”I disagree. If it is done correctly I think the central database that includes all personal notes, meeting agenda and minutes, etc. would be of huge value. The biggest example I can think of is open source development such as the ever popular Linux operating system. In these work environments most conversations take place on mailing lists which are then archived for anyone and everyone to see. Having developed Linux device drivers in the past, those mailing list archives are incredibly valuable. Problems I came across when developing my driver others had come across in the past and their solution was right there for me to see in the exact context that I need. From a fellow developer asking a question and getting an answer from another more experienced developer. And more often than not you see a “Hey thanks, that worked” reply so I can have confidence in the solution working for me too. This is substantially more useful than trying to extract answers from a reference manual or worse yet talking to some 3rd party support representative.Do you ever use It is an excellent resource and I use it frequently to answer a wide variety of questions and is especially useful for “computer support” type questions. I almost always go there before going to the Microsoft knowledge base when I need to figure out why Windows is doing something stupid. For that matter the Internet is like a massive database and every time you do a google search you are tapping into it. If everyone kept the information to themselves the internet would be a vast wasteland and only populated by advertising and other marketing crap. The most interesting parts of the internet are often the unstructured, unmanaged parts (i.e. blogs like this). The least interesting, and often least useful, are the corporate websites where all information is parsed, processed, and ‘sanitized for your use’ by marketing and customer support departments.I guess what I am saying is that any time experts can share information directly with experts without the need for a 3rd party “organizing” that information into a “formal document” it is a good thing and I do think this central database has some merit.

  7. Cindy says:

    blog – what if person don’t have a blog? What if the person has a blog in Chinese and how can and English speaking person able to search a Chinese web? The present day web-translator such as a Babble Fish etc. is not working the way it should. A big bridge to crossCroonies – how do one make sure the selection processes is not for the favourate fews? Even if the Finder is a PERFECT tool, the last say is still belongs to a human voice, brain or hand? I can list more … but basically, we are still trying to solve a ‘human’ equation with a ‘technology’ solution. Much as KM. Cindy

  8. Dave Pollard says:

    David: In your example of open source development, where the knowledge that you’re sharing is technical, a database like this would have value. Same applies to regulations, SOPs, policies and directories — in each case the context is clear and known. But the vast majority of info in business databases is much less contextual — and I include ‘best practices’ in that category — and its value without an accompanying conversation to add context is dubious. The databases that I know of that have meeting agenda, minutes and personal notes about non-technical issues are largely unused. And not being very computer-literate, when I have a technical problem (that’s rare, because I don’t use my software for anything advanced), I either learn by trial and error, or phone or e-mail someone who can solve it quickly (when I give them the context) — I don’t use newsgroups, or find them very efficient for learning anything.Cindy: That’s my point — we need expertise finders to be able to identify and contact the human that can best solve our human problems. I see blogs as merely surrogates, proxies for people when they can’t be reached directly, or when those people charge too much for person-to-person answers. With the right analysis software, they could also be useful for identifying levels of expertise in particular subjects relatively objectively.

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