Opinion: Using IT to tap experts' know-how

The U.S. government is using basic knowledge management techniques to offer timely and valuable advice about how to do business abroad.

At the U.S. Department of Commerce, a commercial service called the DOC Insider is adopting technology for knowledge capture and management from AskMe. The service uses the technology to accelerate the counseling it offers to U.S. companies seeking to engage in international trade.

The DOC Insider has been using Web-based technology to create a knowledge network connecting its 100 offices in the U.S., another 150 in 80 countries overseas and a group of approximately 1,700 U.S. trade specialists who have expertise in what it takes to succeed abroad. These specialists can tell you what trade show to attend if you're interested in selling medical equipment in Germany or what papers to file if you're trying to expand your software business into Japan.

In the past, there was no way to organize what these experts knew, or even how to get in touch with them once they were identified.

Laura McCall, program manager for the DOC Insider, says using AskMe's system is part of the department's fulfillment of its mandate to help U.S. businesses compete abroad. "We have a dispersed, worldwide organization with pockets of information everywhere," she says. The DOC Insider's aim is to help U.S. companies do things such as perform international market research or locate overseas partners. "We want to sit down and make sure you've identified a good market and that you are export-ready," she says.

Each trade expert accesses the knowledge network via the Web and logs answers to questions. "That way, we're able to identify the people and the resources to help clients solve problems," says McCall.

Before selecting AskMe, McCall reviewed the department's business processes to see where the gaps in information counseling existed. "We have a handful of trade specialists who know everything about export documentation, for example," says McCall. "But if they're located in Minnesota and you weren't in the local office, you'd never know they existed."

Now these experts can post answers according to different subject categories, upload documents or even direct businesses to specialized publications online. The information is reusable and is in an expanding database. About 1,200 people have used the system so far, saving about 750 hours of repetitive work, says McCall. There's also a reporting tool that managers can use to track the technology's return on investment and identify topics that are popular so they can beef up their expertise in those areas.

With the huge trade deficit that plagues the U.S., a knowledge management system that helps boost U.S. exports by making it easier to tap experts' know-how is a clear competitive advantage. Similar expertise lies hidden away inside most companies.

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