When it comes to giving people access to tacit knowledge, there are two popular approaches, which we can call "Phone a Friend" and "Ask the Audience," with reference to the popular TV game, "who wants to be a millionaire". In this game, people are asked increasingly difficult questions, until they reach a question where they do not know the answer. They are allowed a number of lifelines; one of which ("Phone a friend") allows them to call a friend, hopefully with expertise or knowledge in the topic, to see if they can answer the question, and another of which ("Ask the Audience") allows them to poll the studio audience.
Organisations can offer similar lifelines to their staff, as part of their Knowledge Management approaches, to allow staff to find knowledge when they need it.
An organization operating along the "Phone a Friend" route may set up expertise directories, where staff can find designated experts for specific topics. They may set up “Ask the Expert” systems, where you can type in a query which goes to the relevant expert to be answered. They may also set up closed-membership communities of practice, where the experts can get together and discuss “best practices”.
An organization operating along the "Ask the Audience" route set up experience directories, where you can find all the people with experience in specific topics, whether they are experts or practitioners. They may set up open-membership communities of practice, where practitioners from all over the company can contact each other for help and advice. They set up “Q&A” systems, where you can type in a query which goes out to the community membership, and anyone with knowledge to offer can answer, thus tapping into the Long Tail of Knowledge.
In the first model, knowledge is assumed to reside in the heads of the experts. In the second model, knowledge is assumed to be dispersed around the community.
There are three cases where you might want to go down the Phone a Friend route.
- The first case is where the demographics of the company is highly skewed to junior people. We see this, for example, in the national companies of the far east, where there are a few experts who have been in the business for decades, plus thousands of people fresh out of graduate school. Here the bulk of the community is inexperienced, and there would be no point in asking the audience, because the audience would not know.
- The second case is where the knowledge is very mature, and not changing much at all, and where all the answers are known. There would be no point in asking the audience, as anyone with any knowledge at all on the topic would know the answer. Here you are better off asking a single authority (or even better, just reading the manual).
- The final case is where the knowledge is very abstruse, and only one or two people know about it. The company expert on Internet law, for example, or the one person in the company who knows about Environmental Impact Statements in the Gambia. Here there is no community – no audience to ask. You have to find the friend to phone.
Where experience and knowledge are more widely spread, then Asking the Audience (open questions in a community of practice) is a far better approach. Otherwise experts can become bottlenecks, we can’t assume the experts can hold the totality of knowledge in their heads, and we can’t assume that the expert will remain up to speed with all the developments in the field. Very often the REAL expert is the grizzled old foreman in a remote operating unit, who knows more about the way things really operate than the whole of head-office put together.
Of course in many companies you can use both lifelines. You can ask the audience (through community Q&A systems), and you can phone a friend, by using the company Yellow Pages to identify those few people with deep expertise in the area you need to learn about. And the great thing about KM In an organisation, compared to the TV game, is that you can use both lifelines at once, and you can use each of them as many times as you like.