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The Four Sons of Content Expertise: Leveraging Different Subject Matter Expert Mindsets in Knowledge Management Projects

1 March 2013
Noga Chipman-Steinwartz
A group of men holding up cardboard boxes with faces drawn on them

March brings with it this year the Passover holiday - the spring festival, the festival of the giving of the Torah, and for children, also the holiday of questions concerning the four famous sons: the wise one, the wicked one, the simple one, and the one who does not know how to ask.

You might be surprised, but these four sons do not always remain within the Passover Jewish Haggadah. They are not uncommon to be encountered in organizations and knowledge management projects involving subject matter experts from various professional domains.

The subject matter expert plays a vital role in the organizational knowledge management system: they manage and develop a defined content area and function as a facilitator for community management and adoption. As part of their role, the subject matter expert is responsible for determining the target audience of the content area, mapping the needs of that target audience, specifying the region, establishing an initial content core, continuously collecting changing content, approving or filtering content received from users, responding to questions and feedback, and constantly promoting the area and the community.

Naturally, each subject matter expert brings their unique personality and worldview to the role. These characteristics will often influence how they lead the area under their responsibility and their decisions regarding making its content and knowledge accessible. How might the traits of the "wise," "wicked," "simple," and "one who does not know how to ask" sons in the Haggadah affect the conduct of a knowledge management project?

At first glance, we all aspire to work with wise subject matter experts—those who bring with them a wealth of personal knowledge, analytical ability, insights, rapid learning, and the ability to adapt and change the managed content for the benefit of the organization's employees. A wise subject matter expert will often ask thought-provoking questions that contribute to developing new knowledge and learning on the part of the respondent.

However, working with a wise subject matter expert comes at a price many must consider in advance. The expert brings their wisdom to the question, so there is limited room left for the respondent's wisdom. After all, when you face someone so wise, what are the chances you'll feel secure enough to express additional ideas contrary to their opinions? What about contradictory ideas? For example, wise people often think and express themselves quickly, which dictates the speed of response that the recipient feels compelled to give - whether to fellow subject matter experts or to the audience of users from whom feedback is sought. Additionally, the fact that a wise subject matter expert is opinionated and confident in their opinion can lead to social conformity, where the recipient feels obligated to agree with the subject matter expert's views, thereby limiting the new ideas they could contribute to the discussion.

A "wicked" subject matter expert sounds daunting... As The Israeli Prime Minister, Mrs. Golda Meir, would define them: "They are not nice." One who is relentless and knows how to identify the weaknesses of knowledge management tools and how to surface them.

However, even the "wicked" expert has excellent value - addressing painful questions often surfaces challenges that others were hesitant to confront, but addressing them is essential to successfully implementing the tool. For example, an expert who asks questions about the value of information and its contribution to the organization's success could lead to replacing it with more valuable, professional, or better-organized information tailored to the user's needs.

On the surface, a subject matter expert described as simple is expected to be naive, unsophisticated, and perhaps even childish. This may be true, but at the same time, such an expert can also be curious, sincere, and adhere to the core meaning of things without drifting into interpretations or content that distracts the user from the main point.

The most significant advantage of a simple subject matter expert is the question that characterizes them: why? Like children tend to do, they will repeatedly ask this clarifying question until they arrive at an answer that cannot be questioned further. Does this sound familiar? Yes, this is the well-known basis of the root cause analysis process, where we repeatedly ask "why" to understand the root causes better.

Lastly, the subject matter expert needs to learn how to ask questions. Imagine what happens when you sit in a room with an expert who does not speak. Initially, it's awkward, but after a while, others start talking and bringing their needs, thoughts, and perceptions to the table. Through their silence, this expert creates a new space; from this space, their colleagues and project partners learn to question themselves.

The Torah spoke about four sons, and this article discusses (and supports) four types of subject matter experts. Each has its characteristics, motivations, advantages, and disadvantages. Perhaps the most important thing for us to remember is the need to match the characteristic that defines the subject matter expert with the area they lead. A "wicked" expert can lead a stagnant area needing refreshment and change to a good place, and a "wise" expert can advance areas led more by individuals than by a group with their professional knowledge. A simple expert can renew and refresh, and an expert who does not know how to ask can promote the creation of new knowledge and enable the learning and growth of ideas.

And in any case, may we have a happy holiday!


Based on Anat Milner-Cohen's lecture: Questions that Create Meaning, IPMA Conference 2012.

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