On a Tuesday afternoon last May, Brad Anderson found himself stumped. As an international trade specialist for the U.S. Commercial Service division at the Department of Commerce, it’s Anderson’s job to help American corporations conduct business overseas. But when a U.S.-based software company called with a question, he didn’t know what to advise. The company wanted to close a deal with a customer in Poland, but the buyer wanted to charge the U.S. company a 20 percent withholding tax, a tax it attributed to Poland’s recent admission into the European Union. Was the tax legitimate?
To find out, Anderson turned to the DOC Insider, an expertise location system that the department had recently purchased from Bellevue, Wash.-based AskMe Corp. After typing in his question, Anderson first found some documents that were related to his query, but they didn’t explain the EU tax code completely. Anderson next asked the system to search the 1,700-strong Commercial Service for a real “live” expert, and, within seconds, he was given a list of 80 people in the department who might be able to help him. Of those, he chose the six people he felt were most qualified and then forwarded his query.
Before the DOC Insider was in place, Anderson says, it would have taken him about three days to answer the same question. “You have to make a million phone calls and deal with time zones,” he says. Thanks to the expertise location system, however, he had three responses within minutes, a complete answer within an hour, and the sale went through the following morning. Anderson estimates that he now uses the system for roughly 40 percent of the work he does.
The DOC Insider is an invaluable tool, Anderson says, and it’s helping his division meet its mandate. In 2002, the organization conducted 150,000 counseling sessions with U.S. companies and helped orchestrate more than $23 billion in business. In fiscal 2003, those figures increased to 165,000 and $34 billion, respectively—and demand has continued to grow in 2004. The DoC won’t say how much of its increased business the DOC Insider supports, but program director Laura McCall thinks the tool is vital enough to provide to other units at the agency. In the nine months the system has been in place, she says, it has saved her department more than 1,000 man hours.
Nor is the DoC alone in having success with an expertise location system, or ELS. Thanks to greater bandwidth, plummeting storage costs and new tools such as enterprise instant messaging, companies large and small—from consumer package goods manufacturers to pharmaceutical companies to law firms—are turning to ELS to help foster collaboration and knowledge sharing. There’s even talk that ELS might redeem investments in knowledge management.
For the most part, knowledge-management databases have depended heavily on employees to volunteer data. These repositories also lacked management and workflow processes needed to support the system and keep it up to date. What’s more, there was no way to find information unless you already had a good idea of what you were looking for. Databases relied on simple keyword searching of documents, and little else. In short, before you could search effectively, you had to know where to search. ELS, on the other hand, lets employees find and connect with colleagues—whether they’re across the country or across the room—to solve critical business problems, and it can identify potential experts even if they haven’t recently updated their skills profile in a database.
Think of it as a dynamic company directory: a search engine that lets you ask a question and then hunts down the right person to answer it for you, instantly. The software trawls through your company’s e-mails and documents, looking for specific search phrases to determine who’s most knowledgeable about certain topics. From that data, the software decides who’s the best person to ask and automatically contacts that person. Once the query has been answered, the software logs the information and adds it to its ever-growing knowledge database. This way, if the same question is asked again, the expert won’t have to answer it a second time.
If that doesn’t sound all that new, well strictly speaking, it isn’t. ELS has been around for a few years. But, as they say, it’s all in the execution, and ELS has been getting renewed attention of late as companies looking to improve business process management report compelling results. In fact, Forrester Research Inc. only recently began tracking the space formally. And while niche vendors such as Tacit Knowledge Systems Inc., AskMe, Participate Systems Inc. and Entopia Inc. are leading the way, major players such as IBM Corp. and PeopleSoft Inc. are sharpening the expertise location systems in their toolboxes, too.
Falling somewhere between human capital management and enterprise content management, the market for expertise location software is still small—less than $100 million, according to Gartner Inc. analyst French Caldwell. But analysts like Caldwell see real potential for ELS to improve corporate efficiency and speed to market. What’s more, regular searches of a knowledge database enables executives to determine where their staff’s knowledge and skills are lacking.