posted 3 Nov 2008 in Volume 12 Issue 2
Ei cover story
New knowledge management approach uses ‘artificial intelligence’
Expertise location no longer depends on people to update their databases. The AI approach leaves the job to technology.
As businesses have become more aware of the wider importance of knowledge management, expertise location has gradually moved up the IT agenda. More companies are now looking for solutions that will help them manage not only their growing reserves of hard data, but also the incredible valuable intellectual capital and employee expertise contained therein.
The term ‘expertise location’ may be unfamiliar to some, but once its benefits are explained there is no confusing the advantages the technology can bring to businesses across all sectors. The easiest case to make is with large, complex and geographically diverse firms where expertise location can be a powerful tool and a significant competitive differentiator which enables the firms to maximise the potential of the collective but dispersed knowledge of their staff.
More than a networking tool
Over the past few years, there have been increasing calls to implement social networking technologies in the workplace. As people become more accustomed to finding similar users at the end of a search query, businesses are investigating similar technologies across the enterprise which will enable them to easily connect and share employee expertise. In this context, expertise location is sometimes regarded as a social networking tool that seeks to address specific business needs.
However, in truth, it goes far beyond that. It connects networks of colleagues and enables businesses to tap into their ‘tacit knowledge’ (in the form of latent staff expertise), regardless of where such knowledge or data may be stored or in what form it may find itself. Most importantly, from the user’s perspective expertise location works to connect those looking to identify particular knowledge with the people or colleagues most qualified to pass on that knowledge based on their actual experience and expertise.
In its most basic terms, connecting people with the knowledge they seek sounds easy enough. However, actually taking advantage of the different knowledge-sets of highly specialised colleagues involves a complex process of connecting, organising and presenting information spread across myriad sources. For the most advanced expertise location solutions, this process involves automatically processing data without human input.
Beyond human input – AI
The idea – often referred to as ‘artificial intelligence’ – is that the technology implemented will be able to recognise new entities, concepts and classifications, and use this new information to automatically update the information available about each user. Electronic learning technologies ensure that once the technology is up and running, minimum input will be required on the part of the user. As such, from the employee’s point of view, searching for the appropriate contact through an author’s name, team, business unit, document type, source, or any other metadata appears to be a relatively simple exercise.
The challenge is, therefore, not just in connecting relevant pieces of data but in presenting such information in a way that is both immediately actionable and user friendly. It is this usability that provides the cornerstone of an effective expertise location solution, for no matter how sophisticated the process going on behind the scenes may be, the technology will ultimately be rejected if the data involved cannot be connected, organised and presented in a way that actually enhances employees’ day-to-day working lives.
To achieve this, good expertise location solutions must therefore be completely automated, and must be able to update and refine search results whenever new information is added to the network, requiring no involvement by the user.
From the IT administrator’s perspective, expertise location completely redefines the legacy approach of keeping information in numerous isolated ‘silos’.
The great challenge is to not only extract this information and expertise from various sources (including customer relationship management [CRM] systems, file servers, document management systems, time and billing systems, intranet, and various other online sources such as wikis, blogs and trusted external websites), but also to tie this knowledge together in a way that makes expertise actionable.
The actionability of information is increasingly important for today’s businesses, especially expertise of the highly specialised variety. As with any other walk of life, the more unique and scarce an item is (in this case, knowledge), the more value will be placed on it. Think about why a seven-foot basketball player in the NBA – even one who does not play all game, every game – is paid millions of dollars a year: there simply aren’t many seven-foot people in the world, and even fewer who can shoot a basketball.
Major shifts in how businesses operate are highlighting the importance of expertise and the ability to locate and action it quickly, simply and accurately.
As the developed world’s economies continue their transition from a manufacturing focus to becoming more service-based economies (and highly specialised ones at that), intellectual capital is gaining importance at the expense of physical capital.
Improvements in communication and increasingly fluid financial flows have facilitated far more rapid innovation all over the world, placing a premium on the ability to locate expertise as quickly as possible. Where weeks or even months were once the norm, acceptable responses are now expected in a few days or even hours.
However, while business is being transacted more quickly in more locations around the globe, huge amounts of expertise are being removed from the market in the form of the ‘baby boom’ population which is entering its golden years – at the exact time that their expertise is most needed. The sum total of these trends is this: being able to find and use specialised expertise has never been more important to businesses than it is today.
Maximising potential of expertise location
The traditional approach to expertise location – an approach which is still adopted by most vendors – is that the expertise one has is best articulated in the form of a ‘profile’ maintained in a manual fashion by the person in question. The problem with such an approach is twofold. First, the very people who are likely to have the most sought-after expertise (typically those in more senior positions and with the most experience) are the least likely to have the time to manually maintain a profile, as they are usually very busy – which is, of course, in the company’s best interest.
Conversely, those with the least amount of expertise to offer (more junior employees) will often keep their profiles the most up-to-date – but at the same time these profiles will be the least useful to the business as a whole. The solution to this conundrum is simple (and aided by increasingly sophisticated tools) – use technology to automate the entire process.
Simply put, the more automated an expertise location solution is, the more successful it will be, as users will not be required to update their profiles each time they produce a new piece of work, join a new team or work on a new project – the process will be handled automatically for them.
Another challenge with the ‘profile’ approach to expertise location is the idea that the best indicator of a person’s knowledge is not what they say they know, but what they can show they know, for example in the form of authored documents. Similar to reviewing a job candidate’s CV, while the candidate’s opinion of their own skills is relevant, what they are able to demonstrate they have done is far more valuable.
Knowledge lock downs
Yet, for fear of exposing themselves to the possibility of a security breach, some firms are choosing to lock down all this valuable knowledge. In the face of concerns about sensitive information, this can be tempting, but hiding expertise makes it unknowable and unusable, and ultimately this can have severe drawbacks for the business.
While there’s no denying that, where necessary, data should be treated in such a fashion, ‘withholding’ or ‘hiding’ information is typically not advisable. As more businesses realise that information is their most valuable business currency, the potential consequences of this data lockdown approach are increasingly being recognised.
Often the best option for a company is to incorporate various levels of authentication and security throughout the organisation, which can be attributed to staff and guests depending on their individual job roles. Such an approach can help ensure that any sensitive information can only be accessed by those who actually have permission and need to access it. In short, expertise location is most effective when knowledge is properly secured via access management – not by obscuring such knowledge. After all, rather than obscuring information, shouldn’t a business look to capitalise on the work done by its workforce? Isn’t the production and utilisation of work product the exact reason why businesses pay their employees in the first place?
Examples of expertise location in action
In its formative years, expertise location was typically found in only a few types of companies and industries like consulting and law firms. Increasingly sophisticated technology and maturing use cases have more industries looking to adopt expertise location. A few cogent examples help illustrate the point.
Unique insurance offering
In this example, an insurance company’s prospective client is looking for a relatively new product that the insurance company has not yet offered to any of its existing clients. The team handling the prospect is confident it will be able to meet its needs – but they need to win the business first. To do so they will need to convince the prospect that they have faced similar circumstances in the past with successful outcomes, preferably for current clients who are willing to act as references for the prospect.
With an expertise location application, the insurance company will be able to highlight similar projects that were successful and pinpoint exactly why these projects succeeded. This can be accomplished by pinpointing those individuals within the insurance firm who have had the most success in such situations, learning from their experiences, both good and bad.
In connecting the dots between the current situation and similar experiences in the past, key insights can be gleaned and brought to bear in the situation at hand – including what worked/did not work, pricing, competition and unanticipated risks or benefits. The prospective client can also be confident in the fact that the insurance company has indeed been in this situation before and has experienced satisfactory outcomes.
Multinational banking client
In this example, a major
Using an effective expertise location tool, the financial institution can put together a proposal that is highly customised to meet the client’s needs in an efficient and simple manner. Using expertise location, the proposal will highlight the strengths of each of the firm’s regional offices, including similar projects with which they’ve succeeded in the past and the profiles of each key executive (and points of contact) the client will want to see – anywhere in the world.
Improving healthcare services while lowering costs
In a very different scenario, a patient shows unusual symptoms the doctor has not seen before. Based almost exclusively on her own research on the case, the doctor believes the patient may have a rare disorder which can be cured with an operation. However, without corroboration, she is reluctant to operate without having more confidence that her diagnosis is indeed accurate. If the doctor decides to operate and her diagnosis is not correct, she may do more harm than good and the patient may suffer the consequences.
Alternatively, if her diagnosis is accurate but she fails to operate, the patient’s condition will likely deteriorate and healthcare costs will escalate rapidly. Unbeknownst to the doctor, this particular set of circumstances has been encountered before, in fact, by several doctors within that healthcare organisation’s own network, albeit in completely different locations.
A cost-effective solution to this situation?
Utilising the healthcare organisation’s internal expertise location system that makes available the collective experiences of the organisation’s entire network of healthcare workers, the doctor makes a simple, web-based inquiry and quickly locates in-network peers who have dealt with similar cases. She makes a series of highly targeted phone calls, discusses her patient’s circumstances with other doctors who have encountered nearly identical cases, and realises her original diagnosis is most likely right on the money – which gives her the confidence she needs to operate. The operation is a success, and after several weeks of recovery the patient is healthy and happy, the doctor has dramatically improved the quality of life of a patient and the healthcare organisation has delivered exceptional service.
In each of the above examples, a few pieces of critical knowledge were required to assist somebody in tackling an issue of high importance, whether it be revenue, a prospective new client or the welfare of a patient. In each example, the use of modern expertise location tools enabled the business to seek the information required, no matter where it was located or how specialised it may have been. With specialist knowledge so highly valued and sought after in today’s modern business, the presence of an effective expertise location solution means that the most valuable experience is just a few clicks away.
Craig Carpenter is VP marketing and general counsel for