Dennis D. McDonald ( consults from Alexandria Virginia. His services include writing & research, proposal development, and project management.

Is Expert Overload the same as Gatekeeper Overload?


By Dennis D. McDonald

Paul Carney provided this insightful comment on my earlier post titled What if Communities Don’t Share Their Expertise?:

Keeping people connected in order to share expertise is a great idea, but the problem is that those people who have a large amount of knowledge tend to grow very large networks.

As each “node” is added to the network, the amount of requests increases. At some point, the person has to stop responding to requests because as a resource, he/she has been tapped out.

I have witnessed this happen. The person ends up closing the door on the community because he has to in order to keep from being bombarded. Then the community gets upset. But I don’t see any other way around this.

If the person keeps the door open, then following the rules of economics, his advice becomes much more “expensive”, which detracts from the low cost of sharing information
I would be glad to hear ideas on how this can be avoided.



Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

The situation you describe — some experts being overloaded – sounds logical based on an understanding of how social and expertise networks evolve within organizations.

If I don’t know the answer to a question and start calling around, eventually I’ll (hopefully) find an answer, but in the process I may waste precious time — my time and the people whom I contact along the way. And I might not find what I’m looking for.

Maybe we can use technology and optimized processes to control these effects so that no single individual is overloaded due to his or her unique expertise.

The expertise management system should (a) reduce the number of jumps I need to take to get to an expert, (b) reduce the amount of time needed to get to that expert, and (c) increase the likelihood that the expert I contact can actually help me.

Operating without the benefit of an expertise management system, some of the people I overload with communication might be “gatekeepers” who may not actually possess the special expertise I need but who, because of their social skills and knowledge, have a good idea of the right people to call. It’s possible (this as a hypothesis) that a functioning expertise management system might actually reduce the load on gatekeepers by helping the user to go directly to someone who knows the answer to the question.

Reducing the load on gatekeepers may not be the same thing as reducing the load on the experts. We don’t know what the overlap is between the two groups. I suspect that it’s not 100%. There may not be a perfect correlation between the fact that I possess expertise and my ability or willingness to participate in the types of social interaction and personal networking that would bring me to the attention of one of the gatekeepers in my organization.

This bring us to the second type of potential overload, the type that occurs because my expertise is needed so frequently that I become overloaded with requests for that expertise. If that is the case, then there may be a mismatch in the organization between its structure and how knowledge is shared.

There are ways to distribute the load on the experts. How we do this will depend on how much we want to rely on automation and defined business processes to help “ration” access to potentially scarce resources. Perhaps an analogy is how call distribution software operates in customer call centers; calls are routed to the next available call center representative based on (a) whether the representative is in the appropriate group (e.g., is qualified to handle a call, say, about billing) and (b) whether the representative is available (e.g., he/she isn’t out to lunch and has not set a status flag to “not taking calls – out to lunch.”

Maybe the expertise management system could also have a routing system that takes into account the frequency with which the expert handles incoming inquiries. This is one of the reasons I suggested earlier in Enterprise Expertise Management Systems and Organizational Reality the possible benefits of integrating email and workflow management with the expertise management system.



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