Make Knowledge Sharing Easier for Your Overworked Subject Matter Experts

Lauren Trees's picture

January is goal-setting time at APQC. This year, many of my coworkers are looking for ways to increase their efficiency and eke out more time for strategic thinking, creativity, and value-added contributions. For knowledge managers, it makes sense to think not only about personal productivity, but also about helping other employees streamline their knowledge sharing commitments. Leaders and subject matter experts need to share what they know, but whenever someone has to answer the same question twice, that’s time not spent solving a tricky problem or coming up with the next big idea.

To this end, one of our member organizations recently told us about a problem it’s having with its expertise location system. Official experts listed in the internal directory are overwhelmed by the volume of questions and requests they are receiving from junior employees. These experts are so busy fielding inquiries that they can’t get their own work done, much less carve out any time for reflection or innovation. This is creating a lot of frustration and decreasing overall efficiency.

APQC’s best suggestion for solving this type of problem is to emulate Fluor Corp.’s Subject Matter Expert Protégé Program. In this program, Fluor experts are paired with less experienced, high-potential employees in their fields. The experts act as mentors and, in turn, the junior employees help the experts record their knowledge in reusable formats and field questions about their areas of expertise. APQC members can read more about Fluor’s strategy in Getting the Most Out of Subject Matter Experts.

Another strategy is to funnel requests for expertise through discussion boards or other searchable forums (or to catalog experts’ answers after the fact and publish them in a knowledge repository). This makes it less likely that the same questions will be asked repeatedly and, if they are, experts can refer questioners back to their previously published answers. Examples of this technique abound throughout APQC’s best practices reports, but here are a few:

  • At Rockwell Collins, technical and engineering questions are filtered through an employee discussion board called Ask AL, short for “the Answer Locator.” The SharePoint site is divided into 26 topic-specific forums to help people find quick answers or connect to people with answers. Designated experts moderate the forums and provide answers, but other employees are also permitted to answer questions.
  • ConocoPhillips funnels questions and expertise requests through Ask and Discuss boards connected to its communities of practice. The discussion forums enable employees to contact subject matter experts for problem solving, advice, and risk mitigation and support. The knowledge sharing team works with community leaders to identify Ask and Discuss content that should be added to the wiki and/or network knowledge libraries for future reference.
  • IBM Global Business Services has a system that allows employees to instant message subject matter experts directly from more than 200 Web-based applications. Once an expert has answered a particular question via instant messenger, the text from the chat can be incorporated into an FAQ and made available to future knowledge seekers.

It should be noted that best-practice organizations like Rockwell Collins, ConocoPhillips, and IBM Global Business Services have cultural norms that encourage employees to search enterprise knowledge repositories before asking a question in a forum or engaging a subject matter expert. IBM takes the additional step of having experts volunteer to answer questions during certain hours in order to reduce the burden on each individual expert.

Sometimes, moving away from the term “expert” toward “knowledge provider” or similar can allow more mid-level people to provide expertise, freeing true subject matter experts up for the really tough questions. APQC members can read more about this strategy in Designating Expertise, Not Necessarily Experts.

Finally, if answering questions is part of a subject matter expert’s job, then this should be included in his or her utilization or performance objectives. When experts have designated hours to answer questions and/or goals around providing expertise, the system usually works better. For example, when Rockwell Collins launched its Ask AL system, experts were worried about how much time they would have to spend fielding questions. The KM team designed Ask AL so that knowledge sharing commitments would not interfere with experts’ other duties, but it also provided training charge numbers that experts could use if they received particularly long, complex questions. Knowing how to code time spent answering questions seemed to allay some experts’ concerns about participating.

I hope you find this helpful as you look for ways to make your leaders and subject matter experts more productive in 2012. If you have additional suggestions, please post them in the comments section!

2 Comments

MCyr's picture

Lauren,
Another excellent article, I love learning about the various options that others are using and then adapting to meet organizational needs and culture.

Lauren Trees's picture

Thanks Mike. You are right that organizational culture is a huge factor. In some companies, becoming an official subject matter expert is an honor employees spend their careers working to achieve. These firms have cultures where having one’s expertise acknowledged and sought out is seen as a pinnacle of the career ladder. At other organizations, the subject matter expert designation doesn’t hold that kind of prestige—it may even be seen as a drain on time better spent on “real work.” These organizations face an uphill battle changing the perception of the expert role, but it can be done, usually by allotting time for experts to share their knowledge and incorporating knowledge-sharing expectations in performance objectives.

Lauren Trees, KM Knowledge Specialist, APQC