Editor’s Note: The Content Wrangler is presenting a weekly series of twelve articles that provide useful insights and practical guidance for those who produce customer support websites. Columnist Robert Norris shares how to overcome operational challenges related to harvesting, publishing and maintaining online knowledge bases. His forth installment examines the fundamental problems causing our topical experts to balk at documenting their knowledge for our self-help websites.

By Robert Norris, special to The Content Wrangler

We rely upon the knowledge of our subject matter experts (SMEs) to help our customers, staff and partners solve vexing problems and we’ve invested heavily in our online presence to put that knowledge at their fingertips. And it’s not like our SMEs are bashful about sharing their opinions, right? Then it should be just a matter of months before our intranet, extranet, online help, support and technical knowledgebases are chock full of wisdom and every important question that surfaces quickly generates an expert’s answer.

The Truth About Engaging Subject Matter Experts

Not happening as expected? Join the club. Many (most?) organizational knowledge bases are more stagnant than dynamic and our users are bypassing them (and our quality control) in search of timely, useful information. This is not only wasteful, it’s risky since informally shared knowledge isn’t vetted.

Truth is, crafting knowledge resources for future use is no easy task and when the topic is broached with SMEs, they relate that it is much harder for them than even we content wranglers imagine. This begs the question:

Why is it so damnably difficult and time-consuming for SMEs to document their knowledge for future reference?

Image: Examiner
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Overcoming Challenges

Let’s take time to examine the problem from their perspective to see if we can identify underlying problems we can tackle:

  • Lack of context—Real-time problems emerge with specific details (context) that the expert uses to calibrate the response. The context for an anticipated knowledgebase problem must be contrived, which—in and of itself—requires significant effort. Moreover, topical experts are not keen on hypotheticals that lack the precision of a real-world problem. Many experts readily admit that imagining and solving fictional problems is tedious, headache-inducing labor.
  • Risk to credibilityMost experts highly value their credibility, or, to put it another way, they rightly fear the loss of their credibility. Opining via a phone or instant message to a grateful recipient who needs real-time expertise is low-risk. Composing an authoritative knowledge base resource is fraught with peril, including the exposure of weak writing skills, erroneous assumptions, faulty logic and outdated knowledge. Moreover, those of us who publish digital resources are prone to stripping out nuanced information in an effort to make the content more approachable, e.g. dropping caveats.
  • Lack of appreciationSolving a real-time problem for a colleague or a client is typically a rewarding experience; their gratitude and respect is a stroke for the ego. In contrast, composing a knowledge base resource for an anonymous future user typically won’t lead to a pat on the back.
  • Critical feedbackWhen directly engaging an expert to solve a pressing problem, the beneficiary has great tolerance for grammatical errors, run-on sentences and jargon. Contrast that with the critical feedback the expert is likely to receive for a knowledge base resource’s length, depth of coverage, format and readability.
  • Lack of excitementSolutions to real-world problems are time-critical; a sense of urgency enhances the importance of the contribution. However, crafting knowledge base resources can be a lonely grind.
  • Instinct for self-preservationOrganizational demand for documenting knowledge from the expert can easily spark resentment and fear that one’s hard-won expertise is being systematically extracted to the potential detriment of the contributor.

In light of the above, let’s rephrase the question:

“Why is it so damnably difficult to get SMEs to overcome their instinctive fears to expend significant —but tedious—effort to solve fictional problems by composing knowledge base resources that are certain to garner criticism while giving them little to no recognition?”

Why indeed…

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Tactics For Success

With some empathy for the challenges our experts face combined with our expertise in content production, let’s consider these tactics to overcome these problems:

  1. Overcoming the lack of contextAs discussed in our previous article, “The Curse of Elegance,” those of us seeking useful knowledge are best served when we the take time and energy to compose excellent questions.  Fortunately for our efforts, this approach works extremely well when engaging experts.  Their angst will be significantly reduced when the question is well conceived, limited in scope and carefully articulated.  In practice, it is useful to assure our expert that we recognize the primacy of our question and accept the responsibility—while seeking both the expert’s and the audience advocate’s advice—to frame an excellent question before she is asked to answer it.
  2. Mitigating risks to credibility & the sting of critical feedbackThis problem is best addressed by assuring the expert that the draft answer she provides will be refined via our editing and publishing process.  In practice—until a mutually trustful relationship has been established—it is well worth the effort to offer the author an opportunity to review the revised resource before it goes live.
  3. Addressing the lack of appreciation and instinct for self-preservationOne of the most common causes of friction in the process of knowledge base resource production is a misalignment of expectations regarding roles and responsibilities.  Often, experts belong to other departments and their work on knowledge base resources is perceived by departmental management as a low priority at best, but more likely as an unwelcome interruption to their productivity.  Key to overcoming this problem is codifying the explicit responsibility as a knowledge base contributor into the expert’s job description.  The expert’s supervisor is then responsible for ensuring the expert is given the time and resources to accomplish these tasks.  Absent that foundation, it will almost always be an uphill battle to engage experts for whom contributing to the knowledge base is on a not-to-interfere basis with their primary duties.
  4. Make their experience enjoyableOur expert colleagues typically like to solve challenging problems related to their domain of skill and expertise. Therefore, it behooves us to frame our knowledge base problems in a manner which the expert finds intriguing.  In practice, it’s often effective to focus a collaborative effort on the knowledge base’s resources pertaining to a given topic.  This lends scope to the problem and can spur creative solutions.  One technique is to facilitate a brain-storming session with both the expert and the audience advocate to review a selection of topical resources to identify needs and develop a plan to improve them.  When this is coupled with a program to recognize and reward excellent performance, we find that many SMEs respond to our efforts by becoming enthusiastic contributors.
  5. Invoke an ownership-based quality control programFoundational to a successful content quality control program is explicit ownership of resources.  The feasibility of applying this principle requires a distinction between authority and responsibility.  To establish accountability, ultimate ownership of topical content (authority) belongs at the department head level, e.g. HR, Communication, Sales, IT. In practice, executives then delegate responsibility for the content’s accuracy and currency to select SME’s which establishes the operational chain of accountability we need to spur action when resource quality needs attention.  A practical aspect of this approach surfaces when a SME departs the organization and the responsibility automatically reverts to the owner ensuring that there is high-level motivation to find a suitable replacement.

While this article focused on the challenges faced by the topic experts who help shape our content, much of what we discussed is applicable to content operations across the enterprise.  Establishing and codifying explicit roles and responsibilities, aligning expectations across departments, approaching collaboration with sincere empathy and striving to enjoy our work are the building blocks upon which we can build exceptional content operations.

Last Week: In case you missed it, here’s a link to “The Curse of Elegance,” part three of the twelve part series.

Next Week:  Robert’s fifth of twelve articles, Hey! Where’s OUR Content?, examines the pitfalls of a myopic content strategy that focuses almost exclusively on marketing to potential customers to the detriment of existing customers, partners and staff.

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