Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Lew Platt once famously quipped “If only HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times more efficient.” This is the perennial problem of the hidden expert. Most of the real “know-how” in an organization floats around in the form of tacit knowledge. That is, information that is not formally captured or recorded. Usually, when you encounter some problem in your business or need a piece of information that you can’t quite lay our hands on, you will have a nagging suspicion that somebody somewhere in the organization has already solved the problem or already has the answer. More often than not you’re right, but because it is not documented in a knowledge-base somewhere (or more likely it is but you can’t find the article) you end up reinventing the wheel. This is not only frustrating, its costly. This “knowledge work deficit” costs Fortune 500 companies over $12 billion annually.
In the fifteen or so years since Platt made his observation, the challenge of keeping track of what your staff knows and what they are really capable of has become considerably more complex. Organizations are more geographically dispersed than ever before and the trend is toward more virtual offices and transient teams. This is generally a good thing in terms of productivity and employee satisfaction but it can make expertise management extremely difficult.
Attempts to translate the knowledge and expertise of highly skilled people into some external form, say a knowledge-base article or tip-sheet, generally fail. This was in fact the primary cause of the downfall of most KM vendors throughout the late 90s. Not only is it nearly impossible to boil down years of experience into an easily digestible form, there are significant disincentives for the individual possessing the knowledge to do so. The obstacle usually cited is the time and effort required, but the real reason is that we still haven’t gotten past the scarcity view of knowledge and information. The expert has something of value (knowledge) that others do not and if that resource is turned into a commodity that can be accessed and used independent of the expert (i.e. putting it into an anonymous knowledge-base or some such) they have diminished the value of that resource (its now available to everyone) as well as their own value (the expert no longer needs to be consulted). For many reasons, this is a false argument and attitudes are starting to change as collaborative technologies and attitudes become more common. But many organizations are still caught up in a knowledge hording culture. There is still a prevailing attitude, reinforced by the current economy, that being the only one that knows how to do something means job security.
A key to overcoming this unfortunate state of affairs is to focus on the individual as a source of knowledge rather than attempting to externalize, codify and document the knowledge itself. This has the double benefit of keeping the information current and incentivizing the expert to share. The more people that come to me for information and assistance, the more I’m perceived as a key player in the organization. Most people also enjoy being considered an expert. Never underestimate the importance of ego in driving knowledge sharing.
Staff lead seminars, tutorials, brown bag talks and formal mentoring relationships will go a long way to changing attitudes toward information sharing and will lay the foundation of a collaborative culture. But before these activities can begin, you need to know what you know (or more accurately what your people know). You may be able to kick start things based on your own knowledge of people in the organization or by leading a tutorial yourself, but to sustain any program of focused knowledge sharing, you need to undertake a more formal inventory. Over the course of the next several posts I’lll discuss different approaches to conducting an expertise inventory and what to do with the results. Until then.