Can I Find an Expert? Better Networking through Technology

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Technologies Converging
Gotta believes that expert systems—along with BPM—are part of the next wave of technologies that will drive portal usage. "If you look at the evolution of portals," he says, "they have gone from content to applications to collaboration, and the next rung on the ladder is process." He believes that in spite of all the tools around BPM, there will always be a gap between the computer technology and the human experts in an organization.

"Look at BPM initiatives and portals, as they become established as virtual work spaces: If you have a solution that is built around process, there will still be a gap." He points out that information will not always be transactional and that people will have to rely on experts for some information. Gotta sees what he calls a "triangulation" between expert, process, and portal. "Things are beginning to fall into place around maturity of portals and portal framework and the strategic implementations of BPM. Yet you still need to get to a subject expert because it's complex," Gotta says. Most people collaborate in personal networks, and organizations lack a lot of good intelligence around finding expertise outside of each employee's known circle of contacts.

Stotland from AskMe agrees, saying, "Within an organization, you have a lot of knowledge. Most key assets are actually the knowledge organizations have—maybe intellectual property, databases, customer names, or the knowledge inside of people's heads. People have spent a lot of time and energy on how to store documents in a way that allows us to find documents we need in any situation." While he says many companies focus on information contained in documents, his company is one that focuses on "the information not inside any document—just inside somebody's head."

Portals—Part of the Solution?
To some extent, portals are already attacking this problem, although not at the same level of sophistication as solutions exclusively devoted to this issue. Both IBM WebSphere and Plumtree have applications that operate inside the portal to help employees find one another. In general, these systems gather information about the user in the background and build user profiles (or employees fill out profile forms), which other employees can search to locate the person that meets their requirements.

Jay Simons, director of applications at portal vendor Plumtree, thinks Expert Locator software helps fill a niche, but that portals can play an important role because the portal is always gathering information about its users. "The portal is in a unique position to build the Expert Locator system because it knows who the users are. The portal has a lot of access to content and services and can track what content a user is creating and consuming, and what applications they use," Simons says.

Similarly, IBM and Lotus have products that poll the system to build user profiles. Tim Thatcher, program director for IBM WebSphere Portal and Lotus Workplace at IBM, thinks this is valuable because you cannot always rely on a user to keep a profile up to date. IBM's Lotus Discovery Service product can work inside or a outside a portal framework, which Thatcher says, "is a system that will go out and inspect content, inspect data—for example, email, and content stores—and try to extract an expertise profile. One of the flaws of humans is that you can create personas and ask humans to update them, but they don't always bother to do that."

IBM also offers a service inside the portal that enables employees to search for someone with a certain expertise. "Within WebSphere, we do have a directory, a people finder that is somewhat like online yellow pages, where you can find information about expertise on a certain project. You can go in and search and one of the fields is Expertise. For example, if you are looking for legal expertise in patent law, you can enter patent law in the Expertise field and locate any individuals with that expertise," Thatcher says.

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