Monday 21 December 2009

Ask the Audience, Phone a friend

When it comes to giving people access to tacit knowledge, organisations tend to fall into two camps. We can call these the “Expert” camp and the “egalitarian” camp.

In the Expert camp, the organisation figures that if people want access to tacit knowledge, this had better come from the Experts. So they set up experience directories, where you can find people with experience on specific topics. They 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”.

In the Egalitarian camp, the organisation figures that if people want access to tacit knowledge, then this knowledge will be dispersed within the community of practitioners. So they set up expertise directories, where you can find all the people with esperience in specific topics. They may set up open-membership communities of practice, where practitioners all of 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.

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. The first assumes that if you need knowledge, you will “phone a friend”. The second assumes that if you need knowledge, you will “ask the audience” (to use the analogy of the popular TV series, “Who wants to be a Millionaire”)

I can think of three cases where you might want to go down the Expert route, but in the majority of cases I am all in favour of Egalitarianism. I think that experts can become bottlenecks, that 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. Consider a company with 1000 people working in a discipline, with an average of 5 years experience each. There are twenty company experts with 25 years experience each. If we sum up the years of experience, the experts hold 500 years, the community holds 5000 years. No expert can keep on top of what’s happening out there with the 1000 practitioners, and very often the REAL expert if the grizzled old foreman in a remote operating unit, who knows more about keeping the machinery running than the whole of head-office put together. And finally, you can’t build a community if the community never interacts, and all the interactions are between individuals and experts.

So what are the three cases where an Expert system is better?

The first case is where the demographics of the company is highly
skewed to junior people. We see this, for example, in the national oil 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.

The second case is where the knowledge is very mature, and not changing much at all; where all the answers are known, and where innovation beings to look like tinkering. 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.

And yet, even outside these three cases, I have found clients who really can’t see that “asking the audience” is valid. They are deeply culturally linked to the Expert model. And I don’t know why this is, other than potentially some deep cultural bias. I have seen this bias in South Africa and South America, and certainly in the latter area is may be linked to a hierarchical deference to intellectual authority. I wonder if there is some link to the Hofstede cultural dimension of Power/Distance Index – but linked to perceived intellectual status.

I suppose the answer is that 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.

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