Can I Find an Expert? Better Networking through Technology

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Expert Locator Packages
These types of portal services and applications provide a much-needed bridge to employees spread out across a large organization, but they may not be enough for those that require more sophisticated management and administrative tools. Some companies require a dedicated Expert Locator software package.

David Gilmour, president and CEO of Tacit, says his software begins where more traditional search methods inside portals leave off. In fact, Gilmour believes that software such as his can help solve the empty portal syndrome where companies fail to keep portal content up to date, causing a decline in usage. "We are cynical about anybody's ability to capture the knowledge of a company and make it available in the portal. They are always going to be a day late and a dollar short," says Gilmour. "A content repository sitting behind a portal is never going to get everybody sharing with everybody else."

Like IBM's product, Tacit crawls a variety of data repositories and builds its own database of experts based on the content inside emails, documents, and interactions with enterprise applications, but that's where the similarity ends. Users interact with Tacit's ActiveNet software, and it brokers the connection between the requester and the expert. Unlike a lookup system, which simply gives an email address so the person can choose to contact the expert, with ActiveNet, one person makes a request and ActiveNet takes care of making the connection. The software determines who has the expertise and sends that person an email. The person's name is shielded from the requester until the expert responds with an answer. The expert is free to reply or not, and the requester has no way of knowing who this person is unless they respond.

Gilmour explains, "You go to the portal and do a search like: I would like to talk to the two or three best people who can talk to me about this. The system then privately routes the request to individuals that it knows are the right ones. If those people choose to opt in and respond to that request, they will respond electronically that they are glad to help," Gilmour says. The experts also have the option of making their profiles public, in which case, a request might generate a list of experts who can be contacted directly.

Sopheon, which focuses its Expert Locator solution on product development, uses a similar approach with the Q&A module in their Accolade product. Bryan Seyfarth, solutions marketing director for Accolade at Sopheon, describes the approach, saying, "If I'm stuck on a detail on packaging, I enter a question for an expert. The system fires off a notification to the expert. The expert clicks on a button and answers, and both the question and answer are stored in the system." According to Seyfarth, "The overall benefit is a much shorter route to getting questions answered, but information also becomes part of the permanent record. What was tacit is now made explicit."

Building Bridges to Communities
Once people connect with one another, another way companies can use this type of software is for community building. Over the last several years, a trend inside and outside portals has been the development of collaboration environments or communities of practice. Because these software packages facilitate connections between people who may have similar interests, they can be catalysts in community building inside a company.

"A big part of our approach, for the most part, is a set of capabilities that enable the user to not just find the right expert and transact with them, but to participate in communities of practice and interest through our solution," according to AskMe's Stotland. "If the exchange of knowledge takes place in the community of practice, it tends to be more widely used and substantive for the organization."

One company that has taken advantage of this type of community building is Proctor & Gamble (P&G), which has used the AskMe product inside their Innovation.Net portal to help connect different people inside the research and development department. "You can imagine a research scientist who is working on a particular new idea in packaging for toothpaste," describes Stotland. "They may be looking for a kind of material that can withstand certain temperatures and pressure. What would be helpful is to tap into the oral healthcare business unit, or maybe there's someone in fabric care who has an opinion on this. The idea with P&G is if you can connect people across organizational silos, then you are really going to get the benefit of the collective knowledge the company has developed."

Ultimately, Stotland sees this technique as providing a way to not only encourage innovation but to save money and development time, and speed products to market. "A good answer would have taken a week to figure out. It saved me 35 hours, and I can include that in the system for somebody to find in the future," Stotland says.

The Politics of Answering
One of the main issues around installing these systems in large corporations is getting people to participate as well as making sure that one person with a certain expertise is not overloaded with requests. Sopheon has found that it actually reduces the number of questions any given expert may be asked because the questions and answers get added to the content repository making it less likely the person will be asked the same question again.

Another feature of these packages is their ability to manage request volume and responses. The system can be configured so a given expert will only be required to answer a certain number of requests a week. The system can send automated reminders to an expert who has been asked a question and then escalate the reminders if the person fails to answer. In the AskMe software, users can let the system know when they aren't available or on vacation, so that the requester is notified or so the inquiry can be automatically rerouted to another expert.

While this may seem like a niche market, the popularity of Expert Locator software is on the rise as large or geographically dispersed companies see the value of tacit knowledge and the need to connect the right people. If companies can find a way around those infamous corporate silos, they can measure value for the organization in time and dollars saved. Although a centralized portal isn't required for these products to work, providing a clear path for employees to access experts can enhance a company's existing investment by increasing the portal's value and usage.

As organizations continue to grow in size and geographic disparity, the challenge of linking the information and expertise stashed away in various corners increases exponentially. While technology offers no magic bullets, one goal continues to be allowing companies to leverage content wherever it resides and, in the case of Expert Locator software, which includes the information inside employees' minds.


Sidebar: Companies Featured in this Article

AskMe www.askme.com
IBM www.ibm.com
Meta Group www.metagroup.com
Plumtree www.plumtree.com
Sopheon www.sopheon.com
Tacit www.tacit.com

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