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Expertise Location and Sharing: Business Needs Will Make Transparency Prevail

January 29, 2010

I completely missed a thoughtful piece in MIT Sloan Management Review from October that looked at the growing importance expertise management inside companies, and how internal social technologies like blogs, wikis and social networks might spawn improvements in that arena. In citing the article yesterday in his blog (which is how I found it), Burton collaboration analyst Mike Gotta noted that although good social tools provide the capability for expertise sharing, this kind of transparency can often be at odds with company culture and politics.

Gotta wrote:

In some organizations that are highly competitive, or live in a world of sensitive intellectual property – there may be barriers to the type of open and transparent sharing that makes expertise easily discoverable. In “unhealthy cultures”, or when job longevity is a concern, people may believe that they are over-sharing what might be one asset that keeps them around. In environments that are “need to know” – information silos may prevent the type of lateral connections social environments might promote.

That is, of course, true at some organizations, especially large ones. For that reason, expertise location must be tied closely to the flow of other work-based technologies. It also needs to be in line with a pragmatic privacy model that makes people comfortable to share expertise based on the realities of their company’s culture and practices.

The first onset of social software — those “Facebook for the enterprise” implementations — often failed because vendors and practitioners at the time wrongly believed that everyone would visit a static-looking social networking profile and update information about their expertise. Over time, we learned a better way to get them to share expertise was through the actions they take throughout the day, and automatically pump that information onto their profiles. Activity Streams have been vital in this effort. If you constantly edit a page titled, “Product Safety,” someone in marketing putting together new packaging labels will know you’re the person to meet with as they put together materials for a launch.

But that doesn’t fully address Mike’s point that some people might not even want to share that much, and my general response to that sentiment is that those employees will find their days numbered.

The reason for their eventual departure will be purely economic, and not related to the technology itself or any kind of “evangelism” on the part of us social nerds. Companies that don’t embrace greater transparency inside their organizations will react slower to change and lose business to their competitors. If you’re a sales person who decided to horde critical information away in your e-mail, you might get away with it once or twice or even a few times. But eventually, you or a colleague will lose a big piece of business as a result. If this becomes a frequent occurrence, your VP of sales will either fire you or demand that you have a central place to share information. This phenomenon, again, is why I firmly believe line of business executives are emerging as the best champions of social software. They live these pain points and see the need to eliminate such political nonsense inside their organizations.

As my colleague Alan Lepofsky often tells me, in the past, people believed that knowledge was power. Today, power comes in sharing knowledge — to gain a better understanding of business and each other.

That’s not a wishy-washy social argument; it’s purely a business one. The employees who share and communicate openly not only are able to make better decisions based on the feedback they get, they ultimately end up looking like confident leaders — not digital paper-pushers who play God with who to include in a CC field.

The other critical element for expertise location inside companies lies in embracing a pragmatic privacy model. It helps fight cultural resistance. If you’re a CFO who has expertise in both finance and operations, then you rightly want to share certain bits of expertise with certain groups. For example, if you update a piece of content called “Mergers & Acquisitions,” you need to feel confident that any activity or update about that information in a social system would only be visible and accessible to a particular set of people. But when you edit a wiki page for “setting better supply chain practices,” you might want to publish that to a larger audience.

Sure, people will still hold on to information, and company cultures never change overnight. But I firmly believe those who don’t adapt will be naturally phased out over time by the pressures of their respective markets.

Update: In our discussions following this post on Twitter, Mike rightly noted that I didn’t address the other concerns he laid out about expertise sharing. They aren’t just the cultural ones, which I largely focused on this post. But also there are issues around accessibility, ownership, and time (among others he listed), as well as compliance, IP, etc.  Anyway, needless to say, make sure to read his whole post if you can.

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