the maze of an empty office stairwell from above
PHOTO: Soulful

One of the unfortunate byproducts of recent months has been the widespread layoffs across many companies. Among those laid off were employees who had built up years of expertise and knew every workaround in the business. Those remaining at the company will not know who has left, what expertise they have taken with them and what expertise remains in the organization.

It's never a good time to lose expertise, but it's particularly difficult now as companies face a huge range of novel business problems. I last tackled this topic in a 2016 CMSWire column. The fundamentals remain the same, but the current need is far more urgent and potentially critical to the survival of your company.

Expertise Search: An Exercise in Futility

You might expect me to now extoll the virtues of enterprise search in finding experts. Far from it. All search vendors have significantly oversold the role of expertise search, with Microsoft as a very good example. The mythology is that people can find experts by searching through the content of internal documents, supported by the information in corporate profiles.

When we create our profiles we inevitably fail to write down everything we know that could be relevant to the company. Dave Snowden explained the reasons for this in detail in a 2008 blog post.

When it comes to searching documents, a core feature of enterprise information is that much of the really smart expertise is in documents that have a limited circulation, often on a need-to-know basis. To add to the search complications these documents might be in one of any number of applications, for example a product lifecycle management application. This calls for federated search, which is not at all easy.

Related Article: How to Connect With Your In-House Experts

Managing the Black Holes

Astronomers cannot see black holes, they can only infer their position from noting their impact on surrounding stars. The same goes for information. Although companies should have an up-to-date information audit, very few have done so even though in theory information is one of the most important business assets. In my experience companies can tell you exactly how many PCs they own and how many tables are in the cafeteria, as these are all in the corporate asset database. But not information assets.

When it comes to search, these black holes quickly become apparent in areas where there is poor information governance. If someone makes a decision to either delete or relocate the information created by a now-redundant employee, the search index will not know it has been deleted or moved until you take the required action. Crawling and indexing content is so much easier than deleting an indexed file. Try it and see! Without managing this process (and that includes making the decision on delete or replace), search users may well see a snippet on the SERP but it will lead to nowhere. Failure modes on search are very difficult to identify and ameliorate, as a brilliant schematic from ClearBox Consulting illustrates.

This is a particular problem with OneDrive use in Office 365. Documents stored in OneDrive belong to the user, and accessible to the owner only. If the owner shares a document, that will be available to other users as well, so they can collaborate — until the owner leaves the company. As soon as this happen their OneDrive documents will not be accessible by others anymore — and OneDrive becomes the black hole of documents sooner than anyone would expect. Using OneDrive is easy, recommended by many organizations — but using it without proper planning and governance is a major information management risk.

Related Article: Diagnosing Enterprise Search Failures

Information Management Meets Knowledge Management

Working through the complex array of issues around the identification and sharing of expertise is where information management and knowledge management (KM) have to meet across a common boundary. KM processes can now be managed within ISO 30401, but this standard fails to explain how to meet the requirements of the standard. For that you need the KM Cookbook which will take you through each step of the process (for what it's worth, it is the only book on KM that has made me smile whilst reading).

Related Article: The State of Knowledge Management in 2020

Month By Month

One of the many complications with planning throughout the COVID-19 pandemic is that the expertise within your organization will change from month to month as some people leave and others join. New team members raise the question of how to capture their expertise when they have not yet written any documents. I am sure all organizations are setting up teams to support operational and strategic change. Make sure to include a team that is responsible for expertise management. You have to avoid suggesting “Paul will know the answer” only to find out he left three months earlier.  

Author's Acknowledgement: Agnes Molnar of Search Explained made very useful comments on a draft of this column.