I came across Why is it so hard to get smart people to share? from Gia Lyons via a mention on the actKM mailing list. She covers some of the common downsides to attempting brain dumps from experts. Her notes reflect many of the conversations on this topic.
“There is a brigade charge underway to capture the wisdom (knowledge + experience) of the retiring corporate crowd. The urgency is perhaps driven by the fact that these “wisdom holders” will retire, then turn around and charge their former employers a hefty consulting fee for continuing their services. Not a bad gig if you can get it. But, those who have tried the knowledge management (KM) thing in the past will tell you that this harnessing, leveraging, capturing, harvesting – pick your favorite over-used word – is a hard row to hoe. And for the record, please do not try to harness or harvest my knowledge. I am not a horse, nor a corn crop.”
Back before knowledge management was a business term, expert systems work included the Knowledge Engineer role (and still does). This person was responsible for developing appropriate representations of the body of knowledge in the expert system. And quite often this included interviewing the experts to try to elucidate their rules and expertise: knowledge harvesting. While it works okay, there were always elements that either could not be discovered or could not be articulated by these means. As a result, expert systems never quite got to the point of perfection predicted by early proponents. And there was always some unsettling aspect of using expert systems alone that made people shy away.
Part of the problem is that the individual really sees no advantage to helping create such a system for the vague ‘group.’ People help other people but it takes a special kind of process to do a lot of work purely for the group without any recognition for performing the task.
Too many of these KM programs do not really take into account human needs and nature. The best way to move the tacit information of the expert into the explicit world of the community is to demonstrate to the expert why it will help save them time and give them more time to spend on what they want to do. This tacit-explicit transformation of information works best when it is an emergent property of a person’s workflow and not the primary reason.
The trap, I think, is in thinking that KM (or any other knowledge discipline) is only about writing things down. This trap is easy to fall into when the focus of the discussion is on the technology, rather than on people and process.
Back to basics then. There are experts within your business, and that expertise is all over the map from arcane technical topics to customer experts to company lore experts. They are employed because their expertise supports the business at some level.
Experts do a lot of things in the context of their work. They apply their expertise to solving business problems, whether in the lab or in the board room. They spend time honing their expertise: talking with people, attending conferences, reading, doing blue-sky experiments, etc. They also respond to questions and requests related to this expertise. (Experts do a lot of non-expert things in the company too — including learning from other experts.)
Most corporate experts hate repeating the same things over and over again. By putting an FAQ about their area of expertise up on a wiki, they can easily remove those sorts of interruptions and concentrate on problems that require their focus. Thus, there is a tacit-explictit transformation but it obviously helps the expert and will provide more time for them to use their expertise where it can really help.
And, as an added bonus, there are now metrics to demonstrate how important the expert is. Simply observing how often the FAQ is accessed and by whom will be valuable. It will be possible to compare the importance of different experts in the community and thus making it easier to reward them as well as making it easier for the experts to demonstrate their usefulness.
So, when it comes to the experts, what do we want them to do? All of these things – in the right balance at the right times. Do we really want them to spend time being interviewed by knowledge engineers or writing down what they know outside of any context? Why not facilitate their current work? I don’t think these projects should get in the way of their work by forcing them into artificial “harvesting” situations.
There are many directions to go from here. For example, maybe the mentees should be writing down what they learn, instead of asking the expert to take on the entire burden. If the knowledge transfer job is necessary, then it has to be in the context of work happening now or in recollection of how a particular project ran. At least then there is some context around which to hang expertise.
There is a balance of sorts between being the expert, becoming a better expert, and growing others’ expertise. Adding to the workload only upsets this balance – and upsets the very people we are asking to “share.”
People generally help other people, not a faceless organization. But people often like recognition for their help. A simple use of Web 2.0 tools helps accomplish both of these, while permitting the organization to capture the expertise of its people in a useful fashion. A real win-win.