A Human Inventory

New software can help companies map their corporate DNA.

The initiative at Rocketdyne came about after a company survey found that workers made an average of 10 phone calls to answer all but the simplest questions. With AskMe, employees can post inquiries to the system, and the software helps identify colleagues who are most qualified to answer them. The program then stores the correspondence for future reference.

So how does the software come up with the appropriate expert for a question? By examining past correspondence, papers, and E-mails that users voluntarily publish to the system. “The appeal for experts is that they don’t have to keep answering the same questions all the time,” says Kiho Sohn, site lead for knowledge management at Rocketdyne. Another incentive is more tangible: compensation is also influenced by how much workers publish to the system.

Sohn says the network is helping create a culture at Rocketdyne that utilizes system thinking. “Employees realize they need to share what they know,” he says. “The company benefits—and they benefit.”

Joseph McCafferty is news editor at CFO.

Local Channels

While identifying an employee who possesses a particular knowledge or skill-set can be a boon for projects, finding such a worker fast can be difficult to pull off. Why? Because of how knowledge often flows through a corporation, which is to say, rarely through recognized (or formal) channels. Typically, corporate knowledge moves through informal networks often called “social networks.”

Currently, IBM Research is working to identify how social networks work and how they can be leveraged. Says Kate Ehrlich, senior technical staff member at IBM Research: “There is a big difference between the people who are formally supposed to have certain skills and the people who actually have them.” The idea here: much of the knowledge sharing that goes on at a company happens between workers who know one another. Ehrlich also says that all companies house hidden social networks. Uncovering these networks, IBM believes, can create opportunities to foster collaboration and knowledge sharing.

“Finding people is about seeking out certain skills, but making use of those skills is more about relationships,” says Ehrlich, adding that much of the collaboration at a company goes on around the coffee machine. “It comes out serendipitously in conversation,” she says.

As multinational companies become more dispersed—and with the trend toward outsourcing still going strong—social networks can get boxed in. “Oftentimes, there are people who have important skills but they aren’t known, so they aren’t utilized,” says Ehrlich. IBM and others are now experimenting with technology to facilitate social networks online. How? Through chat rooms, blogs, and other virtual destinations where workers with similar interests can exchange ideas.—J.McC.

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