|In an age where employees may be spread across the globe, how can a person who needs information or knowledge quickly find it - especially after searching content-based repositories fails to yield results? The answer may lie in a growing niche market known as Expert Locator software.
These software packages (and to a lesser degree, people finder technologies) can connect people and, by extension, can make content locked in employees' heads accessible to other members of an organization. Often targeted at the departmental level, these programs can save time, effort and man-hours. Ron Miller writing in EContentmag.com takes a look at the Expert Locator software market and examines the issues that it tries to resolve.
The definition of Expert Locator software runs the gamut from online white pages backed up by user profiles to sophisticated systems that provide a way to ask questions, then route the question to the correct individual (or individuals), make sure the person responds in a timely manner, and then add the response to the company's content record for future use. One of these systems from Sopheon, in addition to using a software approach to finding people internally, offers access to a network of external experts with controls to protect intellectual property rights.
In addition to Sopheon, companies offering these types of solutions include Tacit and AskMe. While portal vendors sometimes work with these companies, many also offer proprietary solutions to help people find one another.
Mike Gotta, SVP and principal analyst at Meta Group, says that Expert Locator systems use a variety of techniques to determine who has a particular expertise within the organization. "Tools mine the email and document repositories and create profiles and indices, then route information requests according to expertise," Gotta says. These systems could include an intermediary who screens the requests to make sure that one person does not get bombarded with inquiries and to make sure privacy issues are addressed (although this can be automated as well in some of the solutions).
The software provides a way to integrate with existing systems, acting as a pivot for many enterprise software technologies. Doug Stotland, VP of professional services at Expert Locator software vendor AskMe, says: "Typically, most companies we work with have a portal or ECM system. They've got infrastructure, now they need to make it easier to tap what's inside of people's heads and make sure this is part of the overall system. We want to integrate with portal, KM or CRM systems,"
Industry watchers believe that expert systems - along with business process management (BPM) - are part of the next wave of technologies that will drive portal usage. "If you look at the evolution of portals," Stotland says, "they have gone from content to applications to collaboration, and the next rung on the ladder is process." He believes that in spite of all the tools around BPM, there will always be a gap between the computer technology and the human experts in an organization.
"Look at BPM initiatives and portals as they become established as virtual work spaces: if you have a solution that is built around process, there will still be a gap." He points out that information will not always be transactional and that people will have to rely on experts for some information.
Gotta sees what he calls a "triangulation" between expert, process and portal. "Things are beginning to fall into place around maturity of portals and portal framework and the strategic implementations of BPM. Yet you still need to get to a subject expert because it's complex," Gotta says. Most people collaborate in personal networks, and organizations lack a lot of good intelligence around finding expertise outside of each employee's known circle of contacts.
Portals - Part of the Solution?
To some extent, portals are already attacking this problem, although not at the same level of sophistication as solutions exclusively devoted to this issue. Both IBM WebSphere and Plumtree have applications that operate inside the portal to help employees find one another. In general, these systems gather information about the user in the background and build user profiles (or employees fill out profile forms), which other employees can search to locate the person that meets their requirements.
Jay Simons, director of applications at portal vendor Plumtree, thinks Expert Locator software helps fill a niche, but that portals can play an important role because the portal is always gathering information about its users. "The portal is in a unique position to build the Expert Locator system because it knows who the users are. The portal has a lot of access to content and services and can track what content a user is creating and consuming, and what applications they use," Simons says.
Similarly, IBM and Lotus have products that poll the system to build user profiles. Tim Thatcher, program director for IBM WebSphere Portal and Lotus Workplace at IBM, thinks this is valuable because you cannot always rely on a user to keep a profile up to date. IBM's Lotus Discovery Service product can work inside or a outside a portal framework, which Thatcher says, "is a system that will go out and inspect content, inspect data - for example, email, and content stores - and try to extract an expertise profile. One of the flaws of humans is that you can create personas and ask humans to update them, but they don't always bother to do that."
Expert Locator Packages
These types of portal services and applications provide a much-needed bridge to employees spread out across a large organization, but they may not be enough for those that require more sophisticated management and administrative tools. Some companies require a dedicated Expert Locator software package.
David Gilmour, president and CEO of Tacit, says his software begins where more traditional search methods inside portals leave off. In fact, Gilmour believes that software such as his can help solve the empty portal syndrome where companies fail to keep portal content up to date, causing a decline in usage. "We are cynical about anybody's ability to capture the knowledge of a company and make it available in the portal. They are always going to be a day late and a dollar short," says Gilmour. "A content repository sitting behind a portal is never going to get everybody sharing with everybody else."
Like IBM's product, Tacit crawls a variety of data repositories and builds its own database of experts based on the content inside emails, documents and interactions with enterprise applications, but that's where the similarity ends. Users interact with Tacit's ActiveNet software, and it brokers the connection between the requester and the expert. Unlike a lookup system, which simply gives an email address so the person can choose to contact the expert, with ActiveNet one person makes a request and ActiveNet takes care of making the connection. The software determines who has the expertise and sends that person an email. The person's name is shielded from the requester until the expert responds with an answer. The expert is free to reply or not, and the requester has no way of knowing who this person is unless they respond.
Gilmour explains, "You go to the portal and do a search like: I would like to talk to the two or three best people who can talk to me about this. The system then privately routes the request to individuals that it knows are the right ones. If those people choose to opt in and respond to that request, they will respond electronically that they are glad to help," Gilmour says. The experts also have the option of making their profiles public, in which case, a request might generate a list of experts who can be contacted directly.
Sopheon, which focuses its Expert Locator solution on product development, uses a similar approach with the Q&A module in their Accolade product. Bryan Seyfarth, solutions marketing director for Accolade at Sopheon, describes the approach, saying, "If I'm stuck on a detail on packaging, I enter a question for an expert. The system fires off a notification to the expert. The expert clicks on a button and answers, and both the question and answer are stored in the system." According to Seyfarth, "The overall benefit is a much shorter route to getting questions answered, but information also becomes part of the permanent record. What was tacit is now made explicit."
Building Bridges to Communities
Once people connect with one another, another way companies can use this type of software is for community building. Over the last several years, a trend inside and outside portals has been the development of collaboration environments or communities of practice. Because these software packages facilitate connections between people who may have similar interests, they can be catalysts in community building inside a company.
"A big part of our approach, for the most part, is a set of capabilities that enable the user to not just find the right expert and transact with them, but to participate in communities of practice and interest through our solution," according to AskMe's Stotland. "If the exchange of knowledge takes place in the community of practice, it tends to be more widely used and substantive for the organization."
One company that has taken advantage of this type of community building is Proctor & Gamble (P&G), which has used the AskMe product inside their Innovation.Net portal to help connect different people inside the research and development department. "You can imagine a research scientist who is working on a particular new idea in packaging for toothpaste," describes Stotland. "They may be looking for a kind of material that can withstand certain temperatures and pressure. What would be helpful is to tap into the oral healthcare business unit, or maybe there's someone in fabric care who has an opinion on this. The idea with P&G is if you can connect people across organizational silos, then you are really going to get the benefit of the collective knowledge the company has developed."
Ultimately, Stotland sees this technique as providing a way to not only encourage innovation but to save money and development time, and speed products to market. "A good answer would have taken a week to figure out. It saved me 35 hours, and I can include that in the system for somebody to find in the future," Stotland says.
One of the main issues around installing these systems in large corporations is getting people to participate, as well as making sure that one person with a certain expertise is not overloaded with requests. Sopheon has found that it actually reduces the number of questions any given expert may be asked because the questions and answers get added to the content repository, making it less likely the person will be asked the same question again.
Another feature of these packages is their ability to manage request volume and responses. The system can be configured so a given expert will only be required to answer a certain number of requests a week. The system can send automated reminders to an expert who has been asked a question and then escalate the reminders if the person fails to answer. In the AskMe software, users can let the system know when they aren't available or on vacation, so that the requester is notified or so the inquiry can be automatically rerouted to another expert.
While this may seem like a niche market, the popularity of Expert Locator software is on the rise as large or geographically dispersed companies see the value of tacit knowledge and the need to connect the right people. If companies can find a way around those well-known corporate 'silos,' they can measure value for the organization in time and dollars saved. Although a centralized portal isn't required for these products to work, providing a clear path for employees to access experts can enhance a company's existing investment by increasing the portal's value and usage.
('Can I Find an Expert? Better Networking through Technology' by Ron Miller, EContentmag.com, November 2004. Copyright 1998-2004, Online: a Division of Information Today Inc.)