4 reasons not to make the deep experts the main knowledge providers

In the UK we call them “the boffins” – the deepest subject matter experts. However there are 4 reasons not to ask the boffins to write the knowledge base content.

Image from wikipedia

We can view Knowledge Management as the mechanism or system by which we provide knowledge to the customer-facing or revenue-generating knowledge user.

Often you find the deep technical experts are given a role in this “knowledge supply chain“; perhaps the knowledge owner role, collating and providing specialist knowledge content for the front line knowledge workers.

However there are four reasons why we need to treat the boffins with caution (and please be aware that this blog post uses caricature and stereotypes to make a point).

Firstly, the boffins take their own knowledge for granted. They suffer from the “curse of knowledge” – they know so much about the topic that they assume others know a lot as well.  They use shorthand, the make fuzzy statements – they say “of course you need to apply just the right amount of factor X here, and not too much – remember the case of old Figgy back in ’96 when we added too much – ha ha ha!” If you dont know what the “right amount of Factor X is, or have never heard of old Figgy, then this advice is useless.

Secondly, they talk in code. They use jargon, acronyms, and obscure phrases which are useful to the boffin – they describe the nuances of the topic –  but the novice or mid-level user may not know what they mean. So where the boffin might write “check the PSN level from the transposer and make sure this is within limits”, the user might find this more usefully written as “check dial number 2 (see diagram). If the reading is below 20, do X. If it is above 20, do Y”.

Thirdly they can think systemically to a degree that less experienced people cannot. The boffin thinks about causes, while the novice may see symptoms. If an exhausted catalyst creates an error E20 message on the control room screen, for example, the novice needs to find content labelled “E20 error”, not “Exhausted catalyst”.

Finally the boffins go into too much detail. In one organisation I worked with, they had a specialist unit providing advice in response to front line requests. However the feedback from the front line was that this advice was almost useless. Instead of simple practical advice, they get a long academic treatise saying “on the one hand this, but on the other hand that, and if we consider the work of professor X  ….”.  Better to document the simple answer that is right 95% of the time, and provide a contact number to call the boffin if you find yourself in the other 5%.

The knowledge supply chain has, ultimately, to inform the front line worker, in terms they can understand, of what their best courses of action should be. Knowledge has to be practical and actionable and usable, rather than theoretical and abstract. When you design your Knowledge Management Framework, you need to ensure that the knowledge providers and knowledge owners are well versed in the context in which the knowledge will be used, so that they can translate it into pragmatic and actionable terms.

It is fantastic when the knowledge owner has a deep understanding of, and love for, their topic, but in the knowledge supply chain the knowledge product they create has to be fit for use by their customer, the knowledge worker.

Maybe the boffin is best used as a supply of tacit knowledge for unusual or extreme cases, and the content for the majority of the knowledge base should be written by an experienced user instead.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

How to recruit the experts in support of KM

The Experts can sometimes be resistant to KM, seeing it as a threat or a burden, with little personal reward. How can we address this?

Image from wikimedia commons
Many clients we speak to are having real problems recruiting the expert knowledge holders to the concept of Knowledge Management. Even in those companies where knowledge holders are few, and knowledge seekers are many, the experienced subject matter experts are often reluctant to become involved with KM.

The reason is, that because knowledge is scarce, they are busy “doing the job”, and have no time to teach others or to share their knowledge. The fewer experienced practitioners the company has, the busier they are in actually performing the work.

Many experienced staff enjoy their expertise, and they see KM as a distraction or an added burden. They often feel that KM “is not my job”.

“I am an experienced boiler-maker/salesman/brewer/application designer” they say; “my skills are in huge demand. Why should I take time out to share my knowledge? That’s not my job”

Make KM “the job of the expert”

The answer to this, of course, is to make Knowledge Management (or at least a component of knowledge management) the expert’s job, and to give them time and space to do this job..

You can’t expect busy people, in demand from all over the organisation, to add to their burdens with work that isn’t in their job description. But if their knowledge is vital to company performance, then acting as a steward of the knowledge of the organisation needs to be in their job description. It needs to be recognised as part of their job, and they need to be given the space, the resources, the assistance, and (if necessary) the training to allow them to share their knowledge with the next generation – the apprentice generation.

The old career progression from past centuries was Apprentice – Journeyman – Master.

Knowledge Companies need to rediscover this progression, so that the Masters (of both sexes) – the Subject Matter Experts – can see their role as Teaching as well as Doing, and as passing on their skills to those who need them, through the tools of KM (wikis, community forums, peer assists etc) as well as through the traditional tools of apprenticeship (coaching, mentoring, training).

The pinnacle of an expert’s career is to be a Master (or as Rolls Royce calls them, a Fellow). Mastery, or Fellowship, is an honour, and with that honour comes responsibility; responsibility for knowledge. This includes being the Practice Owner for their domain of practice and responsible for the documented knowledge, playing a coaching role in the relevant Community of Practice, partly responsible for the community of apprentices.

We need to rediscover this Mastership role, so we can fully reinstate the experts in their rightful place.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

Why leaving knowledge in people’s heads is not a great strategy

The default approach to managing knowledge which many companies use, is to keep knowledge in people’s heads, and to move the knowledge where it is needed by moving the people, not by transferring the knowledge. 

In this old model, knowledge is owned and held by the experts and the experienced people. Knowledge is imported to projects by assigning experienced people as members of the project team.
Knowledge is transferred from site to site by transferring staff, and by using company experts who fly around the world from project to project, solving problems. Knowledge is stored for the long term in the heads of the experts.

This is a very traditional model, but it has many major failings, and cannot be considered to be effective knowledge management.  Imagine if you managed your finances in this way! Imagine if the only way to fund a project was to transfer a rich person onto the project team, or to fly individual millionaires around the world to inject funds into the projects they liked!

The major drawbacks of this default ‘knowledge in the heads’ approach are as follows:

  • Experienced people can only be on one project at a time, whereas knowledge management can spread that experience to many projects. 
  • Knowledge cannot be transferred until people are available for transfer. 
  • Experts who fly in and fly out often do not gain a good appreciation of how things are done, and where the good practices lie. In particular, teams in projects may hide their failings from the company experts, in order to be seen in a good light. 
  • The burn-out potential for these experts is very high. 
  • Knowledge can become almost ‘fossilised’ in the heads of the experts, who can end up applying the solutions of yesterday to the problems of today 
  • When the expert leaves, retires, has a heart attack, or is recruited by the competition, the knowledge goes with them. 

Unfortunately, for the experts and the experienced people, this can be an attractive model, and was stereotypical behaviour for specialist engineers for many years. It can be very exciting travelling the world, with everyone wanting your assistance. It is like early Hollywood movie scenes with the US Cavalry riding over the horizon to save the wagon train at the last minute. Knowledge management, however, would make sure that the wagon train did not get into trouble in the first place. As one experienced engineer said recently, ‘If you could fly off to some problem project, save the day and be a hero, or sit behind your desk and capture knowledge, what would you do?’

However if that engineer’s knowledge had been more widely available, perhaps the project would not have become a problem in the first place.

Don’t keep the knowledge in a few heads, spread it through the organisation instead.  Build communities of practice to store and share the knowledge. Document what you can in accessible, findable and digestible content. Change the role of the expert, from being the knowledge hodler, to becoming the facilitator and steward of the knowledge framework on their particular topic – ensuring that the organisation is knowledgeable, rather than being knowledgeable themselves.

If you are serious about knowledge, then don’t leave it only in the heads of experts. 

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

The new role of the expert in Knowledge Management

I blogged a while back about the role of the expert in KM. Here is a new article that explains this role in the customer service world.

In my post “what do you do with your best experts” I argued that in the KM world, it makes no sense to put the experts full time on the toughest projects. KM needs to offer them a new role (which should be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat) – to be the stewards and sharers of knowledge, rather than the sole holders.

This is just as true in the customer service setting as it is in manufacturing, projects, or professional service. A recent article from Customer Think, entitled “Why your most talented customer service agents should come off the front lines” explores this further. I quote –

“Every contact center has a handful of star performers. You know the ones I’m talking about. They take more calls than anyone else. They respond to emails more quickly and concisely. They handle three chats simultaneously without skipping a beat… It might seem like a shocking suggestion, then, to propose taking these agents away from direct customer contact work and focus them elsewhere. Yet this might be the most valuable thing you can do to increase customer and employee satisfaction”.

The author, Paul Selby, makes the following suggestions for the new role for star performers:

  • Train other agents. Develop training, or incorporate the star performers’ knowledge best practices into existing training that can benefit the rest of the staff. 
  • Write knowledge base articles. Getting stellar agents involved in the development of the knowledge base is one of the best ways to not only disseminate knowledge better among the staff and to strengthen customer self-service options, but also to ensure that knowledge is retained.
  • Build chatbot conversations.  Chatbots care only helpful to customers and beneficial to customer service when they actually solve problems. Star performers know the questions to ask, and how to diagnose problems and get to an answer. 
  • Develop automation. Constructing new workflows and maintaining existing ones is a great opportunity for star agents to build a new skill as well as develop new relationships in other departments as they work with them on the underlying process flow.

In other words, the star performers are more valuable when their knowledge is not kept in their own heads, but is spread to others via training, coaching, and the development of knowledge bases (either passive or automated).

In more generic terms, we can see the new expert role as having three components:

  • Acting as a source of expert opinion for others, and for the identification and development of technical practices and procedures; 
  • Maintaining knowledge bases, guidelines and best practices, and validating lessons; 
  • Building capability within the community of practice.

In the new KM world, the role of the expert is not only to Know, but to ensure others Know.

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

Why beginners and experts behave differently in KM

Experts and beginners behave differently in Knowledge Management systems. Here’s why.

Great Meadows Fishing Day 2010
Great Meadows Fishing Day by U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, on Flickr

Confucius said “Shall I tell you what true knowledge is? When you know, to know that you know, and when you do not know, to know that you do not know—that is true knowledge”. So the true expert is the person who knows what they know, and what they don’t know.

Before you get that true knowledge, before you become an expert, you don’t know what you know and you don’t know what you don’t know.  That’s a description of a beginner, or a novice; beginners do not yet know the level of their ignorance.

In knowledge management terms, that means you have to treat the beginners and the experts differently. Experts, and budding experts, will become fully involved in Communities of Practice – gaining knowledge through discussions and through questions., When they need knowledge, they will ask for it and receive answers. Their questions are clear and focused, because they know what they don’t know. They won’t tend to use the Knowledge Base so much, as they already know what they know, and are looking to “fill in the gaps” in their knowledge that probable aren’t in the knowledge base.

The novices, on the other hand, will not take part in the community discussions, although they may “lurk” – read the conversations but without taking part. Because they don’t know what they don’t know, they don’t know what questions to ask. When they do ask questions, they tend to be general and basic rather than specific and targeted. However the beginner will find the knowledge base – the wikis, the FAQs – very useful, because it gives them the full picture. It shows them all aspects of the knowledge, so they can understand the full range of the things they don’t know.

The demographics of the workforce determines which knowledge management tools to focus on. A company with large numbers of experienced staff will get huge value from communities of practice, and from question-led discussions among the experts and budding experts. A company with large numbers of new staff and inexperienced staff may get more benefit from building FAQs, knowledge bases and wikis. 

View Original Source (nickmilton.com) Here.

What is the KM role of the Company Experts?

In a fully developed Knowledge Management framework, the company experts have a key part to play.

talk to the experts
The experts are one of your core stakeholder groups in KM, and your change management approach needs to explicity address these people.  For many years they may have acted as sole sources of much of the knowledge, and their personal status may be tied up with their own knowledge. KM needs to offer them a new role, which can be seen as an opportunity rather than a threat.

The technical experts in many knowledge management organisations tend to have a three-fold role:

  • Acting as a source of expert opinion for others, and for the identification and development of technical practices and procedures;
  • Maintaining guidelines and best practices, and validating lessons;
  • Building effective learning communities.

In other words, they are accountable for:

  • Developing and sharing their own tacit knowledge;
  • Ownership or stewardship of the explicit knowledge in their subject matter area;
  • Creation of the network that stewards the tacit knowledge in their subject matter area.
These new roles allow the Experts to become the stewards of knowledge, rather than the sole holders. Make sure these new roles are made explicit and built into their job descriptions.

View Original Source Here.

Finding an answer in the Long Tail of Knowledge

When looking for knowledge, let’s not just rely on finding the experts.

We know that actually only a small percentage of knowledge in an organisation can be accessed through documents, and that most of it is in the heads of people. We know that if we can “find the people who know”, then we can access that tacit knowledge through asking them questions.

One common approach to “finding the people that know” is to build an Expert Locator System. You think – “Who are the experts in the organisation? Can we make an index of the experts, so that people can find them, and ask them for advice?”

However Expertise is not always synonymous with Expert, and certainly Experience is not synonymous with Expert.  The Experts hold only a small percentage of teh organisational knowledge and experience.

Much knowledge lies in the Long Tail

Consider the graph above – a plot of the years experience in an imaginary company. We see red bars and blue bars – the red bars are the Experts, who have 35, 32, 28, 27 and 25 years of experience – a total of 17 years. The blue bars are the workers. They individually have fewer years of experience, but there are a lot of them, and their collective experience adds up to 1187 years of experience – 8 times more than the experts. So if you need an answer to a problem, and if you want to tap into the experience of others, where is that relevant experience likely to sit? 8 times out of 9 (in this example) it will sit it the Long Tail of experience, not in the Short Head of the Experts.

Does this happen in practice? Do we get answers from less experienced workers rather than from more experienced experts? I think in real life – where knowledge exists in context, where contexts vary widely, and where many staff see knowledge in many contexts, then this happens quite a lot. Here is a story from a real company.

“I had written a report on the success of a particular operation in my business in the USA, and I made this report because one of my managers asked me to do this to support a decision. I was able to document some of our information from the last 4 year to help this decision. This is was a significant thing for my team, but it turned out to be significant for other teams as well. I saw a question through the web system asking “what has been the success of this operation in the company?”. This was a question from a team in Africa, and it was a close enough scenario to the scenario for which I had written my report. You feel the Power – you feel the power of knowledge and the value that it might represent when you receive a response “Thank you very much for your reply, because this actually helped us to make a decision”. It was an incredible experience to answer a question in the forum, with only 2 1/2 years experience in the company, and already being able to advice the whole world on the things we do and how we do it”. 

The answer was in the Long Tail, with a junior engineer. The context was similar, the knowledge was transferred, and time and money were saved.

So when you create your systems for tapping into tacit knowledge – your Expertise Locators, your “Ask a question” functionality – do not fall into the trap of involving only the few Company Experts. Remember the long tail, which may contain nearly 90% of the experience and knowledge, and include those guys as well.

View Original Source Here.