Expertise Management and Networking – an Emerging KM Challenge

When the subject of “finding experts” comes up in most groups of legal KM professionals, the discussion often polarizes into two camps – either automated solutions or self-declared solutions. Indeed, some of this is fueled by early solutions that either tried to mine email, document and other work product to determine who the experts were (based on frequency, but not depth or quality, of conversation) or systems that allowed an individual to tick off the boxes indicating their self-declared expertise or interests in particular areas. But the landscape is more complex than that. It is simply not an “either / or” situation.

The problem of managing expertise inside and outside organizations goes beyond just finding the expert. In-house lawyers of those in practice looking for an expert share similar problems. There are many reasons one might want to find the “best person for the job”. It may be to: solve a problem; assemble the right team for a project or proposal; find the best (external) expert for a case; or, make a decision using the best input available. In any case, finding the right expert in the quickest fashion is one of the goals for a successful knowledge management environment. Doing this well can help your organization be more competitive and differentiated in the marketplace – by harnessing expertise to be innovative, creative or inventive.

When asked, most veterans in the organization will tell you they know from experience who the go-to person is. But is that the most knowledgeable person? Or is that a colleague they know and have gone to in the past? And, what about the new team member – the lateral from another firm – how will she be discovered or how will she navigate her way to the best help within the organization? Or, how is the young associate who does not have that institutional memory yet tattooed into his cranium to find the help he needs?

We need to find ways to accelerate the learning and enculturation of new group members so that they do not have to spend years acquiring this valuable knowledge.

A fair bit of research has been done on finding, networking or sharing expertise. Indeed, this work can be found across a number of interrelated disciplines. First, as foundation, the work of expertise researchers is rooted in cognitive science and psychology, education and sociology. These researchers focus on the nature of expertise and how it develops in individuals and organizations. Other researchers have taken a collaborative view of this looking at how experts collaborate (with other experts and with novices); in addition, there are those that focus on a “communities of practice” view – examining communities of experts. And, others are focused on the tools – systems and frameworks for supporting and managing experts and expertise.

A few years ago, we conducted a small user centered design project. In our research, we took a task based view – we asked lawyers to walk us through the activities (or tasks) they would follow when trying to find an expert that was not in their area of practice and in another city. The framing went something like this: “a colleague calls you from Vancouver and says she is looking for legal help with a xxx problem – how would you go about finding the right person to refer her to?” We found that in most cases, people used their social network connections to traverse the firm to find the right resource. In most cases, it meant associates called others from their year-of-call or partners called partners – rarely would an associate call a partner or vice versa. Coupled with an examination of the science of complex adaptive networks and early research and publications about knowledge networks, the network framing of this problem took root in my mind.

A number of organizations have implemented Expertise Networking solutions to provide access to (and between) experts in their organizations. We have collected a number of case studies in our research. We would be very interested in hearing of other case studies to add to our collection. Here are just a few exemplars:

  • IBM uses their Professional Marketplace and Beehive systems to facilitate expertise location and networking. We discussed IBM, BP and Hill and Knowlton in a previous post here on Slaw.
  • BAE is using Autonomy’s Collaboration and Expertise Networking tools to link 130,000 people – … the company targeted the intellectual assets represented by its engineers, scientists and other professionals. “Access to information is good,” says Richard West, head of organization and e-learning at BAE, “but access to people can be phenomenal, and that takes more than users relying on search technology alone.”
  • Price Waterhouse Coopers uses their Connection Machine to allow “partners and staff to solve problems by connecting people to people. It allows information seekers to enter their question in free text, finds knowledgeable colleagues, forwards the question to them, obtains the answer and sends it back to the seeker. In the course of this interaction, the application unobtrusively learns and updates user profiles and thereby increases its routing accuracy”.
  • While most firms are working to block social networking tools as a form of expertise management, others have harnessed them. GE has successfully implemented SupportCentral – or as this post puts it GE Nails the Internal Social NetworkSupportCentral network boasts 400,000 users in more than 6,000 locations around the world. It supports more than 20 languages, garners more than 25 million hits a day … and hosts more than 50,000 communities with 100,000 experts who manage information and answer questions.
  • Probably the best example from a law firm is the work done by Oz Benamram at Morrison & Foerster with the Answer Base system. Explicitly, these search tools are used to help finding experts using their large collection of documents (including something as mundane as a fax cover sheet). This helps to integrate new hires and laterals. Kudos to OZ and Recommind for leading the way in this arena. However, we should note, this is not a one horse race. Other firms are making similar strides using Recommind or competitive products such as Autonomy.
  • Allen & Overy has also gone public with a case study of the firm’s use of social software. Kudos to A & O for harnessing the potential of this new media.

Having looked at this problem as part of a law firm KM strategy, and more recently in research with the Kaieteur Institute for Knowledge Management, we have proposed that Expertise Networking Systems of Frameworks should include systems that:

  • help locate experts in the organization (expert locator);
  • network internal experts (expert network);
  • provide a directory to experts (expert directory);
  • enable one to search for internal or external expertise (expertise search system);
  • allow us to discover existing capabilities (expertise discovery);
  • allow users to ask questions and to receive answers from experts within your organization (question and answer exchange);
  • facilitate collaboration between experts and non‐experts (expert collaboration);
  • host a community of internal experts (expert community);
  • allow experts to share their knowledge (expert knowledge sharing);
  • support virtual marketplaces – allowing experts to swap and trade what they know in response to the demand for knowledge and their ability to supply expertise (expert marketplace);
  • facilitate the profiling of experts capabilities (expertise profiling);
  • allow the visual mapping of expertise connections (expertise mapping – e.g. using social network analysis, SNA, techniques) – one can either use SNA to map this – or, by providing internal social networking platforms, allow this to be derived organically by monitoring the social connections made across the organization;
  • act as a pointer to expert know‐how (who knows what); and,
  • track skills and capabilities and therefore can support future workforce planning. (“workforce value chain” and “talent management”).

Most systems on the market do parts of this – but none that we know of covers this spectrum in its entirety. Indeed, this is largely an organizational or cultural challenge – not a technical one. And therein lies the challenge: we need to find the right mix of tools to support the goals in each organization. We need to look at expertise networking as another tool in the KM arsenal; a tool that takes us beyond simply collecting precedents, research memos and other documents into databases which have mixed success in their usage. Networks have existed for years; but social / knowledge media tools have allowed us to extend the range and reach of individuals and organizations.


  1. Hi, you may also want to try, a semantic search engine for the life sciecences, which also comprises millions of author profiles including listings of leading authors in their field.

    Being an academic, I guess I can be pedantic to point out that published its author profiles before BioMedExperts (Dec 2007 to be precise).

  2. … guess that’s right: cool stuff I’d say.

  3. Joel, in case no one else says so, this was a well thought out and reasoned article.

    It’s rare that a one size fits all approach works in any kind of KM effort, much less law firms. I can’t see expertise management being any different. I’m not offended by self-declaration of expertise, mostly because it demonstrates a personal desire to be an expert. There’s little sense in developing automated ways of declaring expertise, only to find the individual has no interest in helping others in that particular area. On the other hand, self declaration without a track record can waste people’s time when looking for help.

    Again we get back to a mixed approach. Solutions that offer proving grounds, like Answer-based systems, would seem to have a lot of promise. It’s the same argument I used for JD Supra on the web: don’t just tell me you’re an expert, back it up. I think the same premise holds true behind the firewall as well. Lawyers who want a certain type of work to be driven their way, or be the ‘go to’ person, need to market themselves internally to make that happen. KM tools are a big opportunity to help substantiate being that ‘go to’ person; especially in larger firms where the walking from department-to-department isn’t always possible.