The Guru Problem


Years back, I had the good fortune to talk with David Gilmour, back when he was deeply involved in the Tacit Knowledge System. The software, since absorbed and disappeared by Oracle (hoping my Oracle friends can correct me here), simply allowed you to find expertise. You ask a question, and the system decided who could help you based on a simple Natural Language Processing (NLP) analysis of corporate emails. It discerned between people who answer questions and those who ask in order to find the “gurus.”

Fun side note: “simple NLP” refers to noun-phrase understanding. As I recall, there are seven levels of NLP analysis, the highest being the understanding of discourse – which I believe remains an elusive goal for now. IBM’s Watson is an example of a higher order system for NLP analysis, by comparison, understanding concepts beyond noun-phrase matching but short of discourse.

To find the guru, noun-phrase would be sufficient, and the questions in email communications were easy enough to discern. This is more difficult to do with today’s collaborative tools, and the last time I listened to an NLP expert – they were trying to discern conversations within Instant Messaging tools (consider the disjointed nature due to lags and such in a IM or texting stream).

Gilmour’s team also patented the magic that made the whole thing palatable to the gurus, who, after all, have little reason to celebrate tools that offer them nothing but an increase in the number of questions they receive daily. Anyone in the system could “dial down” their visibility at any time. The system would know of their expertise, but the questioner may receive no hint of that person; or may receive a response: ‘Someone who could help you has been made aware of your request.’ This took passive-aggressive potential to new heights. The thinking was, when you had time, you raise the curtain and let them find you by name. When you did not, you lowered the curtain – but still got to see the people wandering about blindly on the other side. The social games that this could feed boggle the mind.

I attended a workshop a few weeks ago, and talked about my experiences with my current employer. Where we use multi-functional collaboration software, follow status updates and blogs from people in our self-selected network of colleagues, etc. One question I received went to the guru problem: “Don’t you spend all your day answering questions, if you have desired expertise? By ‘working out loud,’ aren’t you just increasing the probability that more people will find you and bug you with questions?” I immediately through of the Tacit Knowledge System and my first thought was: “Yeah, I can’t lower the curtain, he’s got a point.” Fortunately, I thought a little before opening my mouth – not something I often nail. The truth is, it doesn’t work like that. When I have a question, I don’t seek out the expertise and post on their wall or email them – instead, I develop a network, and then telegraph my need. Yes, I’m using metaphors from past centuries, but it fits here.

An example: I was meeting with a client who asked about our internal usage analytics – my firm has a page anyone behind the firewall can see that shows company-wide usage and trends for our collaboration tools. The problem: I hadn’t bookmarked it. As the client asked the question, I pulled up my activity stream and posted the question. Within two minutes, literally, a network colleague posted the link for me. Consider this. Rather than pestering the people I know have the info, and without taking time from the client conversation to search, I was able to raise my hand – and someone who was available and reading took the time to provide the answer. Besides the answer: I was able to talk the client about the behavior, the network cultivation, the expected reciprocity, etc., that mattered more than any of the tools or analytics. Good times, if you’re an abject geek.

The notion of ‘working out loud’ is more than exhibitionism. I live within a system of engagement, where I can share what I’m learning and experiencing, answer questions where I can, and generally tend to a broad virtual team where expertise comes to the question. Solving the guru problem, as it happens, takes a ‘village.’

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