What is expertise?
When we think of experts, many of us think as Malcolm Gladwell does in his 2008 book “Outliers” that expertise is built up over many, many hours of practice. He says, 'researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours' (p. 40). Experts of this calibre do not just grow in every corner office.
When we look for expertise inside our workplaces we often look for the next best thing – someone we trust who has familiarity with the subject, or who knows someone with familiarity. This person may not have ten thousand hours under his or her belt, but compared to us this person knows more and can hopefully guide us to what we need. Whether someone has expertise ultimately depends on the context. As I have heard knowledge management consultant Joel Alleyne explain it, if you speak French in New York you are an expert in French; if you speak French in France, you are just another person on the street.
Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge goes a step further in his 10 September 2007 blog post 'How do we measure experts?'. He explains that, if the domain of expertise is complex, highly structured and has stability, as with the game of chess, then a high level of mastery can be achieved. In areas that are not yet completely stable, such as knowledge management, the level of mastery cannot yet be as great. He says 'my assertion is that we should match the expected level and kind of expertise to the nature of the domain'.
Why do we look for expertise?
We go in search of expertise, or the person with knowledge about a subject, for many reasons:
- to answer our work-related questions, whether large or small
- to determine who should be included on a work team
- to bring together a community of practice
- to improve our problem-solving
- to improve our decision-making
- to fill in gaps in our own knowledge
- when looking for a mentor
- to add to our knowledge management system
- to identify and fill gaps in expertise
- to determine what expertise can be leveraged for future opportunities.
If you are looking for the answer to a simple, quick question, someone who knows a little may be good enough. But if you are looking for a person with extensive knowledge about a subject to head up a multi-million dollar project, those ten thousand hours of practice suddenly become quite important. Ideally, if we work in an organisation that requires this level of expertise, the organisation seeks to develop it.
How, then, do we find expertise inside our organisations? If we are lucky, someone has put together a comprehensive directory outlining who knows what. The expertise directory is often the first thing created for new intranets, portals and knowledge management systems beyond the staff directory.
However, the perfect expertise directory very often remains out of reach. There are many challenges with creating good expertise directories; for example, is it possible for staff inside the organisation to report their own expertise accurately? And regardless of the method by which the expertise directory was created, how is it being kept up to date?
An expertise directory may be a good starting point if you are lucky to have one already created; however you will probably need to supplement it. If you do not have one available, you will need to start looking from scratch.
Finding expertise from scratch
To find expertise inside your organisation, you ultimately want to tap into what Joel Alleyne calls 'expertise networks' or 'social, technical and organisational networks that connect experts with novices and other networks' (see slide 6 of his 2009 presentation). Some systems, such as the expertise directory mentioned, are formal. Most organisations, however, do not formalise their expertise or make it readily apparent. Your challenge is to navigate through the informal networks to find that expertise.
As with any research, first determine some key phrases for the subject expertise you are looking to find. For example, if you are looking for a lawyer to help you with a will, you may be looking for a wills lawyer, an estates lawyer, a wills and estates lawyer, or a family lawyer.
Look for evidence of expertise first inside your organisation, either through the documents of the organisation or by finding someone who knows someone. If that does not work, then look outside your organisation to see what you can find about the people inside your organisation.
Here is a suggested checklist for your search.
- Check the staff directory – look at the staff directory and determine who the likely candidates are, and who might know.
- Check your organisation's website – sometimes areas of expertise are listed for clients even when not documented internally. Look for listings by interest, industry, and type of services offered.
- Look at documents inside your organisation – search your document management system and/or content management system if available. Use your key phrases to get started. If you have documents organised as files on a shared drive this will be more difficult unless you have an internal search engine. If you find documents related to your topic, note the authors and look to see if they have authored other related documents.
- Look at your whole organisation – if your organisation has an enterprise search engine, it may search across all documents, email and intranet content. Faceted search in particular can help you quickly drill down into topics.
- Communities of Practice – perhaps you have a business network type system inside your organisation for your staff that is not indexed by enterprise search. You will want to go there directly as well to hunt through the profiles and conversations.
- Ask around – continue by asking those inside your network in the organisation whether they know anyone. In some organisations it is an acceptable practice to send a broadcast email. Put a message on the intranet or use a private Twitter-like microblogging tool such as Yammer or Present.ly if available.
- Look for documents outside your organisation – consider especially key publications in your industry. Determine the best sources for your industry where your staff are likely to publish. For example, search in commercial aggregators such as LexisNexis, Factiva (http://factiva.com/) and Dialog (http://www.dialog.com/), look for papers available from open publishing sources such as the Social Science Research Network (http://www.ssrn.com/) or those in between such as PubMed (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/PubMed/). If your co-workers teach, check for papers available through various local academic institutions. Search with the name of your organisation (and any variations) along with your keywords. Also try Google Scholar (http://scholar.google.com/) especially its advanced scholar search page.
- Look in news sources – checking LexisNexis, Factiva, Google News and any other likely sources for quotes by your staff in the mainstream and non-traditional news sources.
- Google it – although less precise than the methods described above, Google, Bing (http://www.bing.com/), or any of your other favourite search engines may be a fast route to finding an expert.
- Search the social web – check if someone in your organisation has posted a presentation to Slideshare , created a video, been interviewed on a blog, or quoted on Twitter. Using the 'Big Buzz' option from Ice Rocket, for example, locates terms across blogs, videos, Twitter, images and news sources. Whos Talkin (http://whostalkin.com) searches across many different sites including blogs, social networking sites, news sources, social bookmarking sites, and video and image sites. Google offers search across many blogs with its Google Blog Search (http://blogsearch.google.com/). Some sites, such as Slideshare, have their own search engines so visit those sites directly.
- Industry community websites – if your industry has a community group or website such as on Facebook, LinkedIn, or Ning, it might be worth looking directly inside those groups if you can gain access.
Expanding your search outside your organisation also has the dual purpose of getting you started with finding external expertise if you do not find the expertise you need inside your organisation.
[Annotated from Connie Crosby]