A large proportion of your organisational knowledge is never written down, and is often too complex or too contextual to transfer in written form anyway. If you need to find this knowledge, you need find the person. But how?
The problem is similar to one you might face at home, when looking for an expert knowledgeable tradesman to fix a problem. Where do you look?
At home, most of us use one of two options.
Firstly, you might use your own network to find a trusted plumber, a good builder, a gardener who knows the difference between a plant and a weed. Then. if you need someone out of the ordinary and therefore outside your personal network, a “look-up” system is invaluable (Yellow Pages, or an online equivalent such as Rated People.com. Here you can find the registered contact details of everyone in your area with a specific set of skills and knowledge.
How can you emulate that at work? When is networking effective, and when is a corporate Yellow Pages the answer?
Networking – advantages and disadvantages
The huge advantage of networking is that it is dynamic. People come and go, they join and leave the network, but the network remains. Through the connections within a network, you can quickly reach people you have never met; who are two or three degrees separated from you, but linked by mutual connections. Through asking a question in a community or practice, for example, you can often tap into a wide range of expertise. Networks requite little effort to maintain – they are usually self-maintaining. Other than the core group or the coordination structure they need little investment.
The disadvantage is that contribution in networks is voluntary and a network seldom reaches everyone with relevant knowledge. Network adoption, when purely voluntary and bottom-up, often stops at around 20%, so what happens when the knowledge you need is held by someone in the remaining 80%? When sponsored and promoted, communities of practice can reach far higher levels of adoption, but still levels of engagement are highly variable. Some staff are still suspicious of networking at work being purely social, and often it is the people you most want within the network – the older technical experts with a lifetime of experience – who are least willing to join. One of my clients constantly observes that “the experts just won’t join the communities of practice”. And without the experts, these communities have become communities of ignorance; lots of discussion but little knowledge exchange.
Corporate Yellow Pages
The big advantage of the corporate Yellow Pages, if rolled out top-down, is that everyone can be registered, even the experts. You don’t have to hope that a query will be passed (by the 20% of people active in the network) to the right person who will give you the answer. Even the obscure areas of knowledge can be registered and made available for search.
For example I was teaching a KM course in Trinidad some ago, demonstrating an in-house Yellow Pages system, and I asked the class “Has anyone got a topic you want me to search for?” A guy at the back called out “Microwave Towers”. He was putting a series of microwave towers in Trinidad to communicate with a remote base, and wanted to find others with experience in the company. So I did a free text search, and came up with one name, Stanley Patillo. So I said “There you go – someone else with experience” and he said “I am Stanley Patillo”. Well, at least he now knew that he was the sole expert on this topic!
The second advantage is that once you find the expert, the approach to them is a personal approach. Rather than a general request in a
The disadvantage of a corporate Yellow Pages system is that it needs to be maintained. People have to keep their entries up to date, Even large public-domain systems like Linked-In suffer from this problem, and out-of-date entries are worse than no entries at all. However this is one-time effort, and doesn’t require the expert to constantly monitor conversations. They can wait to be contacted.
Sometimes organisations try to use social-style personal pages as a substitute for Yellow Pages, but this seldom works, as I explain in a blog post from last year – the model for People-finders should be Dating sites, rather than Facebook-style personal pages.
What’s the answer?
The answer, like so much else in KM, is that this is not an either-or situation.
Use well-designed Yellow Pages systems, updated as part of the annual appraisal system, that work like dating sites, allowing you to find “just the right expert” for your knowledge needs. Make sure the system links with the Communities of Practice, and acts as an index of communities as well as an index of individuals.
Supplement this with Communities of Practice, which allow more free-form exploration and discussion within the community of practitioners. Make sure the communities link with the Yellow Pages system, and use this as a “list of members”.
That way, you allow everyone in the company the chance to engage with the system they are most comfortable joining, and you allow everyone in the company two ways to find the right person with the right knowledge to solve your problem.