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Tony Sheehan

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Finding subject matter experts in your organisation


The performance support you need might be in the mind of the person sitting next to you. Virtual Ashridge's Tony Sheehan gives us some pointers for identifying the right people.

Those organisations seeking to thrive in today’s knowledge economy recognise the importance of collecting, accessing and utilising all available expertise. Each individual within an organisation has a unique skillset which has the potential to contribute to overall success if applied at the right place and time. However, as organisations grow, many struggle with how best to replace personal knowledge of ‘who knows what’ with an effective organisational system of finding subject matter experts (SMEs).

In order to find SMEs, there is first a need for organisations to document some form of ‘captured’ profile of individuals in order to later compare it against perceived measures of quality of organisational expertise. A typical example is an expertise location ‘profile’, which lists personal competencies relevant to the organisation’s business area in order that these may be found as and when needed. These were commonly used in oil and professional service sectors in the late 1990s and have since become a critical component in any strategy to fully utilise SMEs.

The approach to assessment of quality of expertise is organisation-specific; some may assess expertise based on seniority and qualification, whereas others will look more to results, attitude and impact. Two extreme positions are possible:

  • Structured and process-based organisations will tend towards formally approved lists of expertise, which may be ‘validated’ through qualification, recognition or seniority.

  • Creative and more innovative organisations will often tend towards a more fluid approach, building communities of practice and business-related social networks where expertise is applied directly to organisational problems as required.

Once a profile has been created, technology has become key to unlocking the best overall ‘picture’ of expertise in an organisation. Perspectives on expertise may emerge from data within HR systems, CVs, blogs, timesheets, emails etc and these can create a rich view of expertise over time as it evolves relative to market knowledge. However, in order to find the right SME at the right time, there is a need to also consider a major challenge to today’s workplace; busy working practices in an age of information overload.

Given that information growth has started to outstrip the ability of individuals to absorb it, today’s workplace is a hub of activity – yet much of it busy and unproductive. The challenge to SME location is whether people take the time to stop, pause and realise that the input of a SME may be required to avoid waste and mistakes. As more and more people start to use the internet as a proxy for memory, the opportunities of stopping long enough to realise that an SME may be able to help can be easily overlooked.

To address this challenge, successful organisations address three factors:

  • Cues – some form of alerting is required for busy workers to alert them that SMEs are both available and may be able to help. These cues may take the form of expert learning assets or project reviews to help ensure the right SME is found and used at the right place and time

  • Conversation space – an ability to search a knowledge base of SMEs such that the right skillset is found as required. This may be supplemented with the ability to openly debate themes via online discussion

  • Culture – a recognition that use of SMEs demands two organisational behaviours; that the person seeking assistance will ask for help, and that the SME will be willing to provide it

Expertise evolves over time. It is therefore essential to develop approaches that reveal, review and refresh SME profiles on a regular basis such as at the annual performance review. It is also important to recognise that SMEs do not have infinite time, may move to competitors or may even retire. As such, the progressive collation of expertise into knowledge bases which can be searched and reapplied through use of process remains a powerful tool for basic principles and insights. Lastly, it is important to remember that in an age of global connectivity, the skills available via online networking sites do open up a far wider network of expertise that can supplement or in some cases improve on in-house expertise. The balance between internal organisational perspective and wider global perspective must be established on a case by case basis, but always remember there is a wider world of connected expertise available if needed.

For those seeking to develop improved access to SMEs within their organisations, however, consider three questions

  • How do you assess expertise within your organisation?

  • What processes are in place to ensure SMEs are used at the right time?

  • How is expertise reviewed, captured and developed over time?

The age of the organisational SME is far from over. They can add experience, insight and perspective to many a problem; but only if you define who they are and maximise their impact by designing ways of showcasing and using them into your organisation.

There are also external provisions in this market; Virtual Ashridge is a collection of SMEs which are made available online through a subscription model for organisations. We take the knowledge of Ashridge Business School’s faculty, consultants and associates and curate it in a variety of formats that are easy to sort through and that enable just-in-time-learning for employees when they encounter a problem. While this will not replace the usage of SME’s within the organisation, it is an enhancement to it, and allows employees to source their own solutions from a trusted information source they can access whenever and wherever they need it.

Tony Sheehan is learning Services director at Ashridge Business School. You can learn more about Virtual Ashridge on our website, or by talking to us at [email protected]


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