Finding experts--explicit and implicit

Contributing to the rich collaborative environment is the ability of the expert using XpertSHARE to interact with the desktop of the person making the inquiry. "Anything on the desktop can be shared," says David Rutberg, VP of operations at XpertUniverse. "The people who are connected can work together as if they were side by side." For example, if a customer is seeking financial advice, the expert can bring up a spreadsheet and the customer can make changes as if the application were local.

Seekers of information can also include attachments with their questions, such as a reference document or account statement. Attachments can be marked up on screen during the collaborative session.

"Customer support representatives always like to close out a customer inquiry in one session if possible," says Rutberg. "With the ability to do things like push out a URL to callers so they can fill out an online form in real time, we can maximize the chances of resolving the question in one call."

XpertSHARE provides a set of analytics about the collaborative interactions, such as the duration of the session, the number of questions received by a particular expert and the topic areas of questions. Because of a partnership established recently with Cognos (cognos.com), more sophisticated analyses will be possible in the future. For example, companies using XpertSHARE can find out whether there are correlations between characteristics such as the duration of the session and the likelihood of a follow-up call.

"We see the value of XpertUniverse's collaborative environment as a killer app for portals," says Pat O'Leary, VP of strategic alliances at Cognos. "The Cognos technology is very complementary because it allows a better understanding of how that environment is actually being used." Social network analysis

Social network analysis

Social network analysis(SNA) is a technique that reveals patterns of interactions among individuals or organizations, including the frequency, intensity and quality of interactions. It can help identify individuals who are the "go-to" experts for information and problem solving. Often, those individuals occupy a role that does not show up on the org chart, but they become pivotal through ability, experience or habit. SNA also identifies those who are peripheral--not tied into core activities. The results of SNA are used to support decision-making for project management, team-building and reorganization.

SNA can be conducted via surveys and interviews or by using software products, including those of Autonomy and Entopia. Autonomy analyzes communication among workers as reflected in enterprise content such as e-mails. The results can be displayed in graphic form using visualization software. Characteristics such as frequency and intensity of interactions are indicated by the brightness and thickness of lines on a network diagram.

"We can show the direction of the communication," observes Egan, "and we also collect extensive metadata that provides a detailed expression of what issues are salient on a particular subject."

Entopia's Social Network Mapping software operates by analyzing documents such as e-mail and reports, and tracks how individuals interact with each other in the context of those documents. The collected metadata indicates whether an individual wrote a report, edited it or read it.

"Rules can be defined and weighted," Hickman says, "so that an e-mail has more significance if the person was the primary recipient than if he or she is just receiving a copy."

Results are presented in a diagram that shows connections among individuals. "SNA has many possible applications," he adds, "including finding out how well the most knowledgeable people in terms of expertise are connected to other groups." If a diagram created during the initial mapping is too cluttered, the threshold for links can be raised to show only the top communicators.

In written and in-person surveys, workers are asked to identify the individuals they approach most often for information, whether the answers they receive are useful and why they choose those particular people.

"SNA surveys are a good way to find out who knows what," says Lynda Moulton, president of LWM Technology Services, "and they help clarify a company's implicit processes." Moulton builds visual "trees" that show how employees interact in unofficial ways as well as through formal channels.

Collecting additional information via surveys also helps to pinpoint experts who are not content-specific but have been discovered by employees to be people who facilitate processes. In some situations, the most valuable resource is an individual who knows how to make things happen, rather than a subject matter expert who produces content.

Automated analysis has some advantages over surveys; it is faster, objective and easily repeated. However, it relies on written communication and does not necessarily explain why certain patterns are occurring. For example, discovering that one person is contacted frequently by colleagues does not explain why that is the case. The person may be providing high-value responses, or may be unresponsive the first few times a question is asked. Multiple connecting lines on an analytical chart can indicate a pivotal person or broker, but can also indicate a bottleneck. Ideally, analytical software is used in conjunction with qualitative analysis to combine the best that each has to offer. 

More on SNA from Boston KM Forum

For more information on social networking analysis, check out the archives of the Boston KM Forum. You'll find two useful presentations posted, one by Kate Erlich of IBM and one by Patti Anklam of Hutchinson Associates.

Many KM communities of practice operate throughout the world, although they are not always highly visible. Some reside within a particular company or industry. Others, like the KM Forum, are open to anyone interested in KM.

"We started as an informal group that met to talk about knowledge management over lunch about five years ago," says Larry Chait, president of the Forum and of Chait and Associates. "Now, we host two meetings a month (one lunch, one breakfast) and a quarterly all-day symposium at Bentley College."

The Boston KM Forum maintains its "social network" approach, operating without a formal organizational structure or membership fees.

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