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Using KM to Leverage and Develop Experts

Anyone reading the headlines is aware of the current expertise shortages in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). While many companies are pouring money into recruitment initiatives to buy their way out of the problem, APQC has opted to look at the issue through a different lens. Namely, how can firms better leverage the experts they have while, at the same time, accelerating the rate of learning for new hires and mid-career professionals?

In researching this topic, our goal was to understand the expertise gaps faced by scientific, technical and engineering organizations and the urgency associated with closing those gaps. We also wanted to know what firms are doing to make the most of existing experts and use them to support competency development for less-experienced workers. To find out, we interviewed technical and KM leaders responsible for STEM-oriented workforces. We also surveyed representatives from technical and engineering disciplines, KM and HR to get their perspectives on the issues raised in the interviews.

This research clearly struck a chord with our audience. More than 750 professionals responded to our survey, 56% of whom rate the development of technical expertise as an urgent or significant priority for their organizations. This article shares key insights about increasing access to expertise and developing scientific and technical workers, but the results of our research are too expansive and multifaceted to encapsulate here. You can explore our findings in greater depth—including details on the KM approaches we recommend and examples from leading organizations—by visiting www2.apqc.org/STEMresearch.

The Challenges

Technical leaders told us they are contending with two expertise gaps related to today’s needs and tomorrow’s growth. The first is focused on turning mid-career employees into true experts, and the second on developing novices and newcomers so they can work independently and begin contributing to the organization.

At the top end of the expertise ladder, few organizations have sufficient candidates qualified to step into senior roles, whether as technical leaders or subject-matter experts. We refer to this disparity between mid-career employees and long-tenured experts as the “expert/nex’pert” gap, borrowing a term coined by Lockheed Martin’s KM team. The second gap is the need to help novices and newcomers increase their competency, perhaps faster than previously required.

Based on our survey, this second knowledge gap is being addressed more comprehensively and strategically than the first (figure 1, page S4 KM White Paper or download PDF). Fifty percent of our audience reports that their organizations have significant or fully integrated efforts to support learning and development for novices, whereas only 37% have similar initiatives in place for mid-career professionals. Many—42%—say they see a smattering of activity to develop nex’perts into experts, but no overarching strategy guides and sustains these efforts.

It is possible that the type of specialized knowledge nex’perts need does not lend itself to an integrated approach. However, we suspect a different reason: Whereas the need to bring new hires up to competency is a broad, obvious challenge recognized by HR and business leaders, the gravity of the expert shortage is clear only to those who fully understand the knowledge domains involved. From the outside looking in, an up-and-coming employee may look prepared to step into a technical leadership role, with the gaps becoming apparent only after the expert has walked out the door.

Just because the need to accelerate competency development for mid-career employees is less visible does not mean it is less worthy of strategic attention, however. While it is important to get new hires up to speed quickly, the payoff for turning nex’perts into experts is often larger and more immediate, especially in industries where growth has the potential to outstrip the supply of expertise. If firms want to ensure a sufficient pipeline of technical leaders, they need to allocate resources to mid-career development and give these employees time to engage in formal and informal learning.

The Solutions

When it comes to developing novices and nex’perts, organizations are using a range of diverse tools to address the gaps. Classic solutions like training, technical conferences and forums, content repositories and mentoring are in place at almost all the firms we surveyed, whereas programs targeting high-potential employees, expertise locators and formal programs to capture and transfer knowledge from those nearing retirement are slightly less prevalent. However, we discovered few truly new or emerging solutions, with all the approaches we tested in place at more than 50% of organizations.

Even though most firms gravitate toward the same approaches, their perceived effectiveness varies widely. Training and mentoring receive the highest overall ratings, which is a testament to the value of in-depth learning. Organizations interested in developing nex’perts must engage their current crop of experts in direct person-to-person knowledge sharing, whether one-to-many through lectures and team-based learning or one-on-one through mentoring and informal support on strategic assignments.

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