Wednesday 25 January 2012

What do you do with your Best Experts?

Expert Ability What does your company do with the Best Experts?

In some organisations, the best experts - the most experienced and most knowledgeable staff - are put full-time on the top projects. The theory is that the highest priority project should have the best people working on it.

To me, that's a waste of knowledge. It would be like finding your best general, and putting them in a tank in the toughest battle, on the theory that "they have the most knowledge, let them fight the hardest fight".

As Knowledge Management professionals, we know that there are other ways to get knowledge into a project than by employing the people full-time, and we also know that the more knowledge a person holds, the more she or he is of value to ALL projects. There comes a time when an expert transitions from being a Doer, to being a Teacher; from being an individual who applies their knowledge to do a good job, to an individual who shares their knowledge, and develops the knowledge of others, so that everyone in the organisation can do a better job.

You see this model in many companies. In BP, the most experienced staff become Network Leaders, who have joint accountability for maintaining the knowledge base, and the knowledge assets, and for building the learning networks and communities of practice (they also consult to the most important projects, on a  part time basis). ConocoPhillips have a similar model. In SABMiller, experts from all operating hubs work within “Centers of excellence” who maintain company standards and Best Practice. In Shell, the role of global consultant is the pinnacle of the technical ladder, where the expert consults to many projects, and plays a key role in the Communities of Practice and in developing content for the Shell Wiki.

In each of these companies, the expert has a far greater impact on developing the capability of the organisation, than if they were full-time in an all-consuming project on the far side of the world.

If you Can, Do. If you Know, Teach.


Phyllis Weiss Haserot said...

I think the examples here and what is suggested is a great approach. However, I question whether as structured currently it would work for professional services firms where professionals (lawyers, accountants, etc) usually are not compensated for training, mentoring, knowledge transfer, transferring knowledge and skills and talent management. I definitely believe they should be, but as of today, most are not.

The second problem with professionals is that they often want to be doing the hard work on the front lines, not training, mentoring, etc.

So the question is, can we convince them to structure their systems differently, including compensation, so that they can pass on knowledge and make sure they have the best prepared workforce generation to generation?

Phyllis Weiss Haserot

Jon Thorne said...

do you not think your focus is to heavily on method?

by method thinking I mean acquire knowledge and process knowledge in a planned ... sequential ... methodical way ... based on an understanding that knowledge is scarce and is a set of works.

When a more balanced approach would give equal weight to the importance of a social thinker?

by social thinkers ... I mean ... acquire knowledge they need ... in the moment of need ... by socialising with a diverse range of people to gather personal experiences from experts ... but also "ordinary people" so that they can form their own plan, execute their own plan, learn, re-plan, re-execute, re-learn and so on ... all in the moment of need. This enables them to build a sequence of good choices ... where each choice brings more positive outcomes than the ones before it. This is based on an understanding that knowledge is not scarce ... nor is it a set of works ... it is an infrastructure of social connection

In both this article and the knowledge asset one ... you give a token reference to social by mentioning communities of practice ... but social thinking ... in my experience requires a special set of social traits ... which is hardly ever discussed anywhere?

so can we redress the balance?


Jon Thorne

I am setting up a flexischool to teach children how to think and learn in a social way

Nick Milton said...

I think there is a real problem with professional services firms where the focus is on individual timewriting, and the problem is exactly as you describe. There is no mechanism to incentive the experts to help build the capability of others.

How do we convince them to structure differently? I think the only thing that will do this, is market forces. When legal firms are paid for the solution, instead of for the time spent by the lawyers, then we will see a shift in thinking, and a focus on the productivity of the organisation, rather than on the timewriting of the individual.

Nick Milton said...

Hi Jon

No, I don't think my focus is too hevily on method!

Method is part of the equation, and individual roles is part of the equation also, as is the social aspect. We need to look at all of these (and I cannot cover every aspect in every blog post I am afraid). For example you mention "gather personal experiences from experts", but this will not work if the experts are unavailable, or disincentivsed, or uninterested, or don't feel it's part of their role, and so do not bother to join in the conversation.

I see this, for example, in one of my clients, where the experts play no role at all in the Communities of Practice, because they are "too busy for anything that is not part of the job". I do not see it in other clients, where the experts have been given a role where it IS part of their job.

You need to show people (especially the experts) a reason why they should be a "social thinker" rather than an individual deliverer, and why they should feel a responsibility for the performance of others.

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