Expertise sharing in social networks

Expertise sharing

Expertise sharing and managing knowledge were two different things managed separately. Now research and the popularity of many contemporary social network systems show that they have actually merged together.

Managing knowledge has been an age old concept of effectively utilizing the knowledge resources and revolves around the activities of capturing, storing and reusing it. But then, it is the ‘expertise sharing’ that caught the attention. There are many contemporary social network systems that manage ‘expertise sharing’ but what makes them tick? Is the question.

The thing that both commonly share is the social setup and the prevailing culture of both the organization and the social network environment where they operate.  These are the foundations.

It is no longer about using the metaphor of Knowledge management”. Now the flavor is towards the usage of the word Expertise sharing. It does make sense, actually.  There is an element of social capital influence in expertise sharing.  Social capital develops and flourishes when people see that their actions are reciprocated and that other individuals meet their expectations.

Before we delve into the details, I would like to thank Mark S Ackerman from the School and Electrical engineering and computer science, University of Michigan and Christine Halverson from the IBM T.J Whatson research Centre for their insightful paper ‘Sharing expertise, the next step for knowledge management”. I have referred some content from their paper.

As stated above, the social capital influence consists of three dimensions. Structural, Cognitive and relational. Structural dimension deals with the ability of people to reach out from their comfort zones and seek out information and help from each other. The cognitive dimension deals with shared stories and shared understandings within a group. The relational dimension includes the social norms, trust and obligations within the social network.

Read more from our blog: Designing social media systems.

Are the structural, cognitive and relational dimensions included in the many expertise sharing systems?

The catch is, when these are embedded, they promote expertise sharing. Expertise sharing works well when the social capital influence is embedded within the current expertise sharing systems.

We will explore the current state of expertise sharing systems. We will look at their challenges and collaboration issues facing them. The most prominent among them is the socio-technical gap. A long existed gap in many collaborative work systems and CSCW.

Useful note: What is CSCW (Computer supported cooperative work)? CSCW is a coin termed by Irene Greif and Paul Cashman in 1984. Its main focus is on the areas where collaboration and coordinated activities are supported and managed by IT systems. It is synonymous with the word ‘Group ware’ systems.

CSCW warrants for a separate blog post and will be published in the future.We will explore some aspects of mitigating this gap as well as bringing in the structural and relational dimensions of social capital to the forefront in addressing these challenges.

We will conclude with a couple of approaches we can take to make expertise sharing an everyday affair.

Expertise sharing
Business team sitting around table and working , Designed by Press foto/Freepik


The current state of Expertise sharing systems

  1. Adding a context to a shared information

Adding a context to a shared information in a knowledge repository is a tedious and a time consuming process.

Useful Note:- knowledge repository is an information system which captures, stores and retrieves information. It also has some rules, structure and taxonomy for recording information.

A Knowledge repository acts as an information base. The initiatives within such knowledge repositories ranged from Data warehousing to Business intelligence. There are many examples to such knowledge repositories.  For Example:- Customer relationship management system is a repository of customer information.

The assumption was that people with prior experience in their field would go and share their knowledge in this repository. The challenges in such systems are easily notable and apparent.

The system assumed that all knowledge whether explicit or tacit would be recorded. Secondly, it assumed that people would share information spontaneously and thirdly, people would understand on their own, the context surrounding that information.

One thing we need to understand here is that managing knowledge is not free. There are lots of resources tied to it, as well as time. There is a tedious 2 step process.

1. The person sharing the information has to build an appropriate context around it to relate it to other people. 2. The person receiving the information has to again put the effort of understanding and adapting the information to his or her context.

There are a whole lot of social processes involved in the expertise sharing process.

  1. Accuracy and timely updates

Accuracy and relevant updates in a timely manner is a challenge in expertise recommendation systems. Recommending an expert to a group or to answer a posed question has always been a challenge. It has nothing to do with the recommendation engine on the technology side. It is more to do with the social and relational issues for dynamic changes and situations.

Even though we might have skills inventory, the skills keep changing and the users move on too. The recommended data must be accurate and updated for the recommendation of expertise to be timely and to the point.

  1. Time and resource constraints.

Finding the right resource is difficult and that too on time. People can find expertise themselves. A good example is Quora.  People can go online and post their questions and they get answers from anyone from the general public. Such online meeting places requires people of some expertise to help others.

The challenges are, such online systems assume everybody to join the conversation and spend time and energy.  The question is how many people have this time to contribute and we cannot expect everyone to be sociable.

  1. Weak bonding between participants.

Weak ties and bonding are a common pattern when peer groups form. Information and communication flows between them. These groups form when there is a common problem to be solved. They actively work on the problem and they disburse when it is solved. But then, even though the group team members are geographically spread out, the same issues persist of finding the right expertise and the data needs to be correct and relevant.

Other issues within this area, are social in nature. The group members need to understand each others work styles and culture which silently influences the overall productivity of the peer group.

The contention and the challenge stated above in all the four areas is not the technology problem that hampers the expertise sharing. It is the social and collaboration issues that needs to be sorted out and all of them suffer from the same social technical gap. Sharing expertise requires us to bridge this gap and surmount the collaboration challenges.

Let’s look at what the social-technical gap is all about.

The social-technical gap for Expertise sharing.

The social technical gap concerns with the underlying social issues when developing or designing technology for expertise sharing. It is the gap between the technology and social phenomenon.

We seriously need to include both the structural and relational dimensions in designing systems to bridge this gap. We looked at this in our previous blog.

On examining things deeply, three big areas emerge which need to be addressed. These are the social findings that are highly relevant in our current society.

  1. Social identity

Even though human beings are social animals, we have our own nuances in the way we approach others and share information. We wear social masks and have our own social identity online.

We manage and project ourselves differently with different people.

For example, what we tell about success in life with our kids, would be different in how we speak about success in public. Isn’t it.

How we talk to our parents about our happiness would be different on how we talk about it with our spouses. Isn’t it.

Useful note: Social identity is a person’s self –concept in a perceived social group. It was coined by Henri Tajfel and John Turner in the 1970’s. Social identity motivates people to be and show positive distinctiveness among a social network or a social group. This behavior ranges from within the individual’s immediate family to the wider group.

Everyone does this unconsciously without much thinking. Our social activity is both fluid and nuanced. Technology and applications with embedded social network are on the contrary quite simple models. They wouldn’t know this complexity by being fluid and nuanced spontaneously.

Any technology interfering with such social interactions and impression management, cannot foster or nurture the subtleness in the fluidity or nuanced behavior.  It is difficult and as such there is a gap.

Social norms and social identity varies with different relationships (Designed by Freepik)
  1. Compromised Social norms.

By social norms we are talking about rules existing in a social network or social setting. These norms exist even in a collaborative expertise sharing system. The same norms of social behavior exist in even in online social media and other social networks.

Useful note: Social norms are more like “values and rules of behavior” which are considered acceptable in the society. They are all mostly unwritten. It is useful to have a quick reference on the social impact theory, which dwells on the personal importance, urgency and the size of the social network the person is involved with.

Unless there is a strict governing hierarchy in a social network, these rules are broken. We have seen these rules being broken all the time in popular social networks. So the people who are using the social networks are actually constantly reshaping the rules based on their current behavior and needs.

For example, Facebook never started as a photo sharing system. It was initially launched for communicating user status. But then, over the years, the users had evolved and changed the behavior of the system.

This mandates that the social media system or the social network requires a back channel brokering system to mediate and move around the rules and re-write the rules sometimes. Can this be a norm in Enterprise systems? A big question mark.

A special mention on how social identity and social norms affects the real world business scenarios. Assistant Professor Liu Yanju, from the Singapore Management University (SMU) ,School of Accountancy, quantifies how private and social interests interact, and the conditions under which one interest can take precedence over the other.

Liu studied “Sin” industries particularly tobacco and alcohol found that when there are high ‘financial rewards’ involved, the financial analysts backed them ignoring the social norms.

  1. Rewards for everybody

According to the Grudin Paradox, there should be incentives and rewards for everybody participating in the collaborative expertise sharing system. Jonathan Grudin in 1989 framed this concept and is called the Grudin paradox.

Useful note: Jonathan Grudin was a principal researcher at Microsoft research in the areas of Human computer interaction and CSCW (Computer supported cooperative work). The Grudin’s number or the Grudin’s problem is used extensively in designing collaborative software for organizations and social networks.

For example:- What is in the best interests of the landlord may not be in the best interests of the tenants. Tenants may not want to share the number of electric appliances they are using inside the house. Even though this may be part of the house contract for limiting the number. The same case is the case with the Employer and Employee in different scenarios in organizational setting.

So, what we are saying is, everybody needs rewards. In an expertise sharing system both the experts and users need to be rewarded. Practically speaking, “What is in it for me” must be effectively addressed for all the users.

There exists a gap.

Now that we have understood the aspects of the social –technical gap to a good extent, we need to consider how we can move around this gap.

There are some solutions that can be looked into to acknowledge the social processes that needs to be addressed for a expertise sharing system.

Approaches to circumvent the expertise sharing gap

1.A combo of social network, knowledge sharing and expertise sharing.

Knowledge repositories have existed from a very long time in many companies and other social networks. We augment the usage of this repository by combining the prevailing social network in an organization or social setup.

If the user is not able to find an answer for a question in a repository, we can escalate it. The system automatically triggers an escalation and routes it to another expert, a chat session or a bulletin board or even to a help desk.

When the system escalates the question, other users in the immediate environment come to know about it. They are familiar with the situation. As they work in the same environment, they know the context and direct it to the appropriate expert.

Even if there is a discrepancy, the system still provides the answer by linking the knowledge repository with the organizational social networks.

3.Creating virtual social environments explicitly.

By creating a virtual social environment explicitly, new ways of collaboration emerge. People and expertise all come together. Those who have the question and those who have the answers for them.

The questions are visible to the open public and hence they have a broader reach and are able to solicit the best and relevant answers from the experts.

Example: – Quora is a good example of the online expertise sharing social environment.

Useful Note:  Quora is a question and answer social network embedded in a social media system. A community of users can ask questions, answer and edit their responses. It is founded by two ex-employees of Facebook in 2009.

Another useful way is to use both the Synchronous and Asynchronous mode of communication. Babble and Loops both projects at IBM are some good examples. Twitter is also another good example of such communication.

All these systems provide new forms of collaboration that is currently happening through these online social networks. These systems are bridging the gap for they serve not only to build social relations but also for expertise sharing.

For further resources on this subject, please find the below links.

  1. A book on “Expertise sharing” from MIT press
  2. Expertise sharing project from the School of Information, University of Michigan.
  3. Social identity theory from Simply Psychology.
  4. Read Jonathan Grudin’s blog.
  5. Read about Social Identity theory from Henri Tajfel.

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Collaboration of ideas through knowledge brokering

leap through knowledge brokering

knowledge brokering- Summary

Curious as I was, it was first time I heard about the concept called the “knowledge brokering cycle”. I was pleasantly stunned and surprised that much has already been researched and written about this technique of new idea generation process. Never the less, this a best practice followed the world over.

Knowledge brokering helps us make those leaps from old ideas to new ideas and apply them to newer contexts in an easier fashion.

I am talking about the article “Building an innovation factory” written by Andrew Hargadon and Robert E. Sutton in the June 2000 issue of Harvard business review. After going through the concepts presented in the article, felt it was widely relevant even today considering how businesses can be innovative in the changing dynamics of the business environment. We all know that new ideas are so precious in the modern economy. It does not have to be done in an isolated fashion. The business of producing new ideas and testing them have now been made more systematic and it can be followed and implemented by any organization.

Let us have a look at Wikipedia and see  what it says about “Knowledge Brokering”

“A knowledge broker is an intermediary (an organization or a person), that aims to develop relationships and networks with, among, and between producers and users of knowledge by providing linkages, knowledge sources, and in some cases knowledge itself.”

The recycling of old ideas has been the primary engine for generating new ideas. This generation of new ideas is done through a set of processes or best practices known as the knowledge brokering cycle. The knowledge brokering cycle has four parts leading to innovation.

  1. Recording and capturing all the old ideas.
  2. Discussion and interaction on the older ideas to keep it alive.
  3. Brainstorming on the old ideas to generate new ideas.
  4. Finally, converting the new ideas into useful and commercially viable business concepts, processes or products.

The wonderful part is that each one of the parts can be practiced independently by individuals or companies or they can be used as a set of processes for generating new ideas. They serve as a best practice. Leaders and individuals who use these processes have to change their thinking and should foster that culture within their organizations.

Such thinking is increasingly practiced by more and more companies. These companies know that it is the new ideas that move their companies ahead and without which they would become obsolete.


Understanding the Knowledge brokering cycle

Organizational leaders  know that it is no longer about working in silos but it is all about the attitude and helping each other. The more the ideas from each and everyone in the company, the better. They have learnt to systematically use the old ideas as raw materials to generate new ideas.

The process of conversion of old ideas to new ideas by following a set of systematic processes is what the knowledge brokering cycle for innovation is all about. There are some intermediary companies and organizations who take up the work of bringing together all the old ideas and make a newer connection. They make use of the old ideas in a new way, in a different combination and in a different industry.

There are many wonderful examples, where proven and established concepts are reused and recycled in a different contexts. This is an excellent way to spark creativity and innovation.

A wonderful example to mention is that of the steam engines. For more than 75 years, the steam engines ran in mines and then came Robert Fulton. Robert Fulton thought deeply about it and then came up with the idea of using the same steam engine for propelling a steam boat.  He then later on developed the first commercially accepted steam boat using a steam engine. A classic example of using a steam engine in an altogether different problem. He thus made the leap.

So it is obvious, that we need to make those leaps from older ideas and apply them in newer contexts. Knowledge brokering as a concept and as a best practice helps us make those leaps. The leaps become more and more easier as we keep embracing the knowledge brokering processes.

Now let’s quickly look at the four parts of the knowledge brokering cycle. As we have said earlier, even though the article is written in the year 2000, it is widely relevant and prevalent even today. We would say that these processes have matured, as most organizations not just within the design firms like “Ideo” and startup incubators like “Idea labs” but also other smaller organizations, consulting companies across many industries across the world who have applied these best practices within their own processes and work practices.


1.Recording and capturing old ideas

The first obvious step is of-course to record and capture all old ideas. Leave no stone un-turned. Even if you are not sure, whether a particular idea may/may not be of use, record and capture it anyway. We never know, how it can be of use in the future.

The process is simple. When you find an old idea, you simply do not throw it away but you play with it within your mind and see what more can be done. How it works and doesn’t work in certain situations and so on. One can start imagining different ways of doing and applying the idea. But, all these mental calculations start after you have recorded and captured it.

For example, in IDEO, the design firm, employees take a field trip to a local toy shop or a hardware store to just get to see how things work. By seeing and being there, there are chances that new ideas might happen. Similarly, there are organizations which arrange employees on training to go on a field trip to visit local industries.

We can take another example from Thomas Alva Edison. This was almost hundred years ago. Edison followed many work practices, which he sincerely followed and the result of course are so many of his inventions. He says,

  1. First study the present model or construction
  2. Then, look for past experiences
  3. Do as much background reading and researching on the subject as possible.

Many innovative companies including consulting companies follow the same model for re-engineering their business processes and for process and work improvements as well.

The idea collection goes on and takes up different shapes in many industries. As mentioned earlier, many companies operate as intermediaries or play the role of knowledge brokering. They collect as much information as possible on the products and observe the users. They also engage in scanning the environment. Such scanning, recording and capturing ideas aid in initiating the next big project.

Usually, big consulting companies like Accenture engage all their clients from diverse industries once in a while and invite them over for a conference to talk about diverse industry issues and challenges. Some of these issues may lead to new ideas and thereby innovation. You just need to keep imagining. Some may click and some may not. The important thing here is that we need to keep collecting all the ideas.


2.Discussion and interaction on the old ideas to keep it alive

This is the second step in the knowledge brokering process and which is also very crucial for the successful outcome of generating new ideas in the knowledge brokering cycle.  We need to keep the ideas alive. Discussion and interaction of the existing ideas is a continuous activity. Often, the biggest obstacles in solving the problems is not ignorance, it is not getting the right information at right time. Many people miss this information, even if they have already known or learnt about it.

Lot of information is tacit in the minds of employees. Companies lose information when employees leave them. The notion that “All ideas are good” holds true. We just need to keep piling with more and more ideas.

We need to keep discussing about the ideas and interacting with each other on “What works” and “What does not work”.

An excellent example, is the use of “Tech boxes” at IDEO. Each employee at the company owns a Tech box.  A “Tech box” is a huge collection of material (usually, interesting ideas) that the employee has collected over the years and curates it.  Over a weekly conference call, the employees discuss new additions to these boxes. This is an excellent way for employees to keep looking at their boxes and discuss it over with their colleagues. In this way, the ideas are kept alive, discussed over and passed on to others. Sometimes these stored ideas can be reused by others as well.

Ideas would die, if they are not kept alive. Practice and experience says that if the ideas are not embedded in real life objects, they would eventually die.

It was for these very characteristics that the employees at IDEO were respected for they went out of their way to help others.

Another classic example is the knowledge management system at Accenture. Initially, when they developed, they thought that the presentation slides and reference documents would be sufficient. But, this didn’t really serve the purpose. The employees did not warm up to it.

The employees used the reference documents and slides as annotated yellow pages. These pages would give them information on whom to connect to, for getting the information. Whom they should really talk to, to get the rest of the information.  The team at Accenture learnt the hard way that “having a huge database of information, is alone not enough to solve the problems”. There were lot of learnings from this direct observation and they redesigned the system.

The team at Mc-Kinsey accomplishes this by maintaining a database of “who knows what”. Through this method, the Ideas were kept alive, fresh and they were always discussed about.

Edison was also known for keeping his ideas alive. He remembered all his old ideas and had the ability to know, when and where it was used.


3.Brainstorming on the old ideas to get newer ideas

The next important step in the knowledge brokering cycle is to find out and identify new uses for the old ideas, apply and test them for newer contexts and situations.

Nowadays, we find lot of crosspollination of ideas that happen. The internet and the social media is full of such examples. Would like to talk about two of them which caught the fancy.

The first one is the usage of old plastic pet bottles. Instead of throwing them away in the garbage can for recycling, people have found innovative ways of cutting them into two halves and using them for growing small house plants, pen stands, magazine stands and shoe racks etc.

The second one is the usage of the big plastic water drum. These plastic drums are sliced into thin strips of plastic. These strips are then used for making garden chairs.

There are many classic examples. The one on Edison’s bulb was memorable. The bulbs kept falling from their fixtures. A technician thought about this problem and suggested that they use threads after noticing a threaded cap of a kerosene bottle. And thus the threaded bulb was born.

When you start talking a lot about your problems, at one point in time you will know, who will be able to help you better. Conferences on specific issues and topics that happen all the time around the world, informal talk with colleagues and formal brainstorming sessions are some of the ways that people share their problems and this way new ideas are born.

There is also the redesign of office physical spaces. The designs are made in such a way that people always bump into each other.  Very typical of an open office space  where everyone meets everybody.

A wise man once said “the real measure of success is the number of experiments that can be crowded in 24 hours”.


4.Converting the new ideas into useful and commercially viable business concepts, processes or products.

The fourth and final step in the knowledge brokering cycle looks into the aspect of turning those ideas into useful concepts or products. A good idea needs to be converted into something that can be tested and experimented and if successful needs to be integrated into the rest of the other processes or pursued independently.

It is in this stage, as we experiment and test with the ideas that the mistakes can be known, rectified and improvements can be made.

There are many organizations within this knowledge brokering step that involve themselves in prototyping and making simulations. These techniques aid in refining and further developing on those ideas so that they become commercially viable.

The focus should be on testing and solving the problems and not on the final solutions. Final solutions will fall in place once we get it right with highest quality. Prototyping and testing should be part and parcel of the process towards innovation.

The positive aspects of such testing and experiments are that we know where the failures are and we learn from our mistakes and improve upon them.


Knowledge brokering groups – inside organizations.

Any company can make use of the knowledge brokering groups that exist informally within the various functions. They can be formally assigned as the knowledge brokering group and can be given the task of assimilating facts and figures of what everybody is doing and moving the ideas from one place to another place. They act as a point of contact for further knowledge.  Other employees and business groups within the function can count on them and avoid re-inventing the wheel scenarios.

If a particular concept has already been implemented in another business unit even if it is across the globe, The knowledge brokering group can help disseminate it to the rest of the organization or to where it is needed.

A good example of this case is the Hewlett Packard’s SPAM group which was formed way back in the 1990’s to optimize the supply chains. SPAM (Strategic planning and modelling) used powerful modelling techniques to analyze “What if” scenarios and spread it to the rest of the organization.

It goes without saying, innovation can always be given a boost if the organizations can foster the right culture and if the people working inside can carry the same attitude of openness in helping others.

The people should cultivate an attitude of shared culture and openness in helping others.

Particularly, people working in the knowledge brokering groups should be curious as to know “what else they can do with the ideas and concepts and where it can be used “ rather than “from where it has come from or who has given it “. Interestingly, an “Ego scale” has been developed to screen staff from joining or raising a startup organization. This scale was developed by one “James Rabbins”.

So on a scale of 1-10, an “Ego scale” rating of 7 or 8 would suffice. A rating of 10 would be somebody who acts as if they know everything and have nothing more to learn and rating of 3 would mean somebody who lacks the confidence to be successful entrepreneurs.

The idea of the “Ego scale” is to have somebody with a right mix of confidence and humility. Such individuals will create the collaborative culture needed for the knowledge brokering groups to thrive.

Financial rewards from the organizations might help but true respect, self-worth and success for the knowledge brokering groups come when they are selfless in contributing new ideas and freely brainstorming without inhibitions. They understand that “when you give, a new insight happens”.


Please also read our internal resource from Work Monkey Labs on a similar topic

Learning from inventors and scientists- Successive collaboration of ideas


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