Saturday, July 26, 2008

Subject: Experts Matter

Note: This is the 5th article in the “Why Johnny Can’t Innovate” series.

As tends to happen at my local bookstore (where I write most of my articles), a new book found its way into my ‘to read’ pile. Mark Bauerlein’s “The Dumbest Generation” caught my eye, if at first for no other reason as to its wise-ass potential. I soon realized that the book’s cover belied a more serious message within its pages.

The premise of Bauerlein’s thesis is that a growing number of young people in the United States are losing the ability to read and comprehend literature, engage in scientific and political debate, and are generally becoming knowledge deficient. The cause is an over-abundance of social technologies which distract young minds from intellectual pursuits and cater to the banality and peer adulation needs of “anyone under 30”.

While I can’t say that I entirely disagree with him, I do have a different perspective on the changing face of human-enabled knowledge management.

I get to work with people who have made careers out of knowing and innovating slices of key industries, science and technologies better than most if not all of their peers. I get to see the best of the best do what they do, and they all do it as well or better than anyone else in their fields. They are, what we call in innovation practice, subject matter experts (SMEs).

SMEs drive cutting-edge advances in all fields such including physics, chemistry, biology, materials, engineering, and of course - business. Frequently I get to know these experts on a personal level, and see the paths they’ve taken to get where they are in their careers. While their industries may differ, their stories are similar. SMEs have journeyed along highly challenging and collaborative academic or entrepreneurial paths, becoming recognized by their peers, and ultimately have sought to bring their talents to the corporate world.

Soon after securing a position in a prestigious firm or a bold startup, a shroud of isolation quickly surrounds many experts as the needs of competitive secrecy and corporate culture arrest open exchange and communication. The subject matter expert becomes an individual contributor, and soon, becomes focused on his or her individual contributions within a department or a project. Does this impact their abilities to drive innovations in their fields of expertise? No. But it often impairs their innate skills of documenting their expertise, or becoming an expert in anything else, in favor of their companies’ operational efficiencies.

Experts are not simply critical innovation resources for the knowledge they’ve passionately collected, developed and apply. Experts are critical drivers of innovation because of how and why they became experts in the first place. They were once passionate about their interests and developed effective documentation, investigation and collaboration skills to rise to the top of their fields. SMEs are incredibly good at writing narratives about their discoveries, research, and opinions. Organizations with an innovation mandate should not overlook these skills, and the SMEs who possess them.

Of the many reasons innovation initiatives fail, lack of available or accessible subject matter expertise is a common factor. In my experience, too often it is discovered that the expert knowledge that could have meant success for the initiative was present all along, but the body-corporate never realized that it had the critical resources sitting within their own walls.

Fostering a collaborative environment across experts in multiple departments, business units and operating companies does not mean risking competitive controls or changing the corporate culture to a completely academic environment. To unleash the potential of SMEs in an innovation culture, a proactive knowledge management strategy that is both central to the organization and distributed throughout all of its operations is critical.

Promoting strong narrative forms of collaborative communication can raise the collective knowledge of an organization, and stem the costly onset of institutional memory loss. This aspect of communication is a critical element of many contemporary social networking applications.

Unlike the exchanges among the younger population which give Bauerlein concern about a growing knowledge deficiency, enabling SMEs to tell and leverage their stories across organizations and industries leads to knowledge-enabled innovation.

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