Every organization — be it large or small — has experts who know better than anyone else how things work. 

They are the go-to people — the ones who have the answer to your burning questions. Some of them are hidden, preferring to help out only when it won’t disrupt their daily work. Others are paid and encouraged to be the expert. 

In either case, their importance is growing, and will only increase in the next 10 years. For many companies, losing these workers’ knowledge and expertise would have the same results as losing trade secrets: unanswered customer requests, stalled manufacturing and assembly lines, delayed shipments, and new products never being released. 

So what factors affect experts, how can knowledge workers connect with them more efficiently, and where can companies invest to grow and retain their experts?

3 Factors Creating Demand

Global social and economic factors are driving the growing importance of finding and collaborating with company experts. One is the number of globally connected smart devices. IDC Research estimates that by 2020, global spending on smart devices will grow to $1.7 trillion, almost triple the amount spent in 2014. Software embedded in these devices will significantly grow the need for experts who understand how they work and how they’re connected.

Second, with the near-ubiquitous access to high-speed Internet and smart phones lowering geographic boundaries, more companies will hire employees who only have a virtual presence, or who are employed on a contract or part-time basis. This can lower costs and demands for office space, and can confer advantages in global coverage. But it also raises the amount of virtual communications required — instant messaging, text, email, web conferencing, etc. 

And finally, Cisco estimates that, by the end of 2019, global Internet traffic will reach 168 exabytes (nearly one billion gigabytes) per month. The staggering amount of information available and transmitted online today (and the promise of more in the future) demands expertise to sort, identify and synthesize it. 

Combined, these factors create a tough situation for both companies and experts. 

Perhaps counterintuitively, most experts would prefer not to be known within organizations. Their days as typical knowledge workers are already rough — most of them begin their days with email inboxes stuffed to the brim, a long list of unanswered voicemails and texts, and more yellow sticky notes affixed to their monitor than you’d think physically possible. They’re inundated with emails from colleagues in remote locations 24 hours a day. 

One colleague of mine — who shall remain nameless — admitted to actively blocking his calendar and setting his out of office message on just so he could dig out from underneath the constant barrage.

Proven Strategies

In discussing this topic with organizations of all sizes, a few proven strategies have emerged:

Identify the key areas of knowledge in the company. These could range from products, services, components, software, hardware, tools, processes and more. These could be products developed in-house, or acquired and brought in to support the development of the products and services your company offers.

Once the areas of expertise have been distinguished, take stock of who might already hold expertise on these topics. In some cases, one expert might actually have deep domain knowledge across a wide span of processes and tools.

Having identified the experts, assess what their current role(s) are in the organization. Are they already taking on five or six major areas? Are they properly equipped to respond to the influx of potential questions?

Identify the ways that these experts are known to the organization, and how others can interact with them. In large organizations, often there is no expectation set around how much and how often a person is expected to engage — their daily work is not measured by how effectively they are connecting with peers and answering questions. This is by far the most critical step: change management is required on many levels, from defining the roles of individuals, to defining etiquette and expectations for collaborating.

The Good and the Bad

I've worked closely with companies over the last two decades to outline their collaboration strategy. And I've seen good and bad outcomes. 

The good outcomes generally arise from understanding the core problems before moving to designing a solution. 

But when organizations take a backwards approach, bad outcomes arise. These businesses design a solution first, craft a long list of requirements and select software to support collaboration — without first thinking about how or why their knowledge workers need to connect with experts, or who their experts are. They assume “if we build it, they will come,” and reckon that experts will reveal themselves to the company without any change in their existing workload or responsibilities. 

If your experts already feel under-recognized and overwhelmed with existing, traditional collaboration mediums, adding “yet another collaboration solution” will undermine morale and erode their willingness to participate. And, if collaboration systems designed to help answer questions fail to produce meaningful results within the first interaction, employees will immediately revert back to the tools that work — email, phone, sticky notes, and so on.

Business success relies on effective collaboration — it can reduce product development costs, improve customer satisfaction and drive revenue. But what determines collaboration success is both surprising and challenging. 

A good step to get you started is knowing who you are trying to serve and what you’re trying to help them do — and that starts with listening to what your experts have to say.