There are two common approaches to answering requests for knowledge - asking an expert, or asking a community of practice. I prefer the latter, and here's why.
|Image from an excellent blog by John Hand, |
also discussing expertise location vs
But which people do you connect? Again there are two approaches - connecting people with experts, and connecting people with communities of practice.
The former is the focus of a growing discipline of expertise finding, with software that trawls social media (for example) to find the people who seem to say the smartest things, and so to divert questions to these assumed experts. The latter is the focus of traditional communities of practice, where questions are asked in open forum, to be answered by anyone with knowledge to offer.
Each of these systems has advantages and disadvantages.
Advantages and disadvantages of expert finder systemsIn a situation where there is a small number of experts servicing a body of people with very limited knowledge (for example in a Customer Support system) it makes sense to connect the questioner with a single expert. They can give a quick and reliable answer, and there is no need to involve others in the conversation.
However this assumes that the knowledge can be answered reliably by a single person, that the system reliably identifies the experts from their published material, that the question can be accurately analysed, tagged and linked to a single expert, and that the expert does not become overloaded by questions.
There are some big issues in that last sentence. Identifying expertise from publications tends to recognise the prolific publishers and overlooks the more introverted experts. Also questions are rarely easily tagged, and often you need to "question the question" to find out what the real problem is.
Advantages and disadvantages of communities of practiceCommunities of practice seem less efficient, in that a single question may go to many people, some of whom do not have the expertise to answer. Also the question may receive incorrect answers from people with limited knowledge.
In practice these disadvantages are also advantages. In a situation where knowledge is in fact scattered and diffuse, then only the network can provide the answer, as components of the answer may need to be supplied by different people. This will be the case where communities contain many experienced practitioners rather than a few,as in a technical area within a large multinational, or a sector network in a consulting firm.
In contexts like this, communities of practice may access "the long tail of knowledge" and pick up crucial piece of knowledge from unexpected places. See for example the story of the Polymath project, where crucial steps in knowledge were provided by non-experts.
Any non-experts who offer incorrect knowledge are usually rapidly corrected, which provides the spin-off benefit of removing wrong knowledge from the community. The fact that others in the community can see the discussion taking place in open forum allows them either to contribute their knowledge, or (if they are a novice) to lurk, listen and learn. This apparent wastefulness - involving people who take no part in the conversation - in fact raises the knowledge of the whole organisation.
For these reasons, in settings other than Customer Support, I much prefer communities of practice to expert finder systems. The apparent messiness and inefficiencies of communities of practice are in fact their strength.