Ethical and social considerations of expert identification

For many years I have expressed my reservations about how effective enterprise search can be in identifying experts within an organisation. Yet this remains a core ‘benefit’ that is visibly promoted by search vendors. Often I feel like a voice crying in the wilderness (see this post from 2017) so I was very encouraged to find a recent research paper from three Microsoft authors which addresses the ethical and social considerations in automatic expert identification and people recommendation in organizational knowledge management systems.

To quote from the abstract of the paper

“While such systems have the potential to make certain parts of people’s work more productive or enjoyable, they may also introduce new workloads, for instance by putting people in the role of experts for others to reach out to. And these knowledge bases can also have profound social consequences by changing what parts of work are visible and, therefore, acknowledged.”

Based on a very thorough review of research in this area the authors raise a number of questions that they feel have not yet been fully addressed. Among them are

  • Who should influence and control the construction of organizational recommender systems at various stages, from design to adoption and use?
  • Who owns the knowledge extracted from activities at work?
  • What does it do to a person’s “ownership” of a process if that process is modelled and made replicable?
  • What would be pros and cons, from an end-user perspective, of being given control over how one’s work data is interpreted and when it is used?

The authors make the point that although there is a great deal of discussion about the ‘future of work’, far less attention has been paid to the ‘future of workers’

This is a very concise paper, running to just 4 pages including an excellent bibliography. However, the implications of the issues they raise are very significant, not just for search managers but for knowledge managers, line managers and in particular HR managers. The emphasis of the paper, as exemplified by the title, is on the ethical and social considerations.   The authors make it clear that at this stage they may only have identified a selection of these issues and suggest that we are just at the beginning of the conversations that need to take place around this topic.

If you have any role in the management of expertise and knowledge in your organisation I would strongly recommend you read this paper. The issues raised may be novel to you but it could be that many of your employees (especially those with business-critical expertise) are also thinking along similar lines.

What would be your response to their concerns?

Martin White