Dumbledore’s pensieve – is there any other way to get knowledge out of an expert?

Dumbledore: “I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form.” And of course, Harry Potter is then also able to see what Dumbledore knows.

There’s a wealth of hidden knowledge in the people we know and work with. But it’s trapped inside their skulls, and the responsibility for sharing it isn’t theirs alone. So short of invasive surgery, how do we get it out?

There are lots of good reasons for doing this – the problem is most apparent when people leave the business. It’s at this point that we suddenly realise that they knew a lot of stuff nobody else seems to know. So we either live with a sudden outbreak of ignorance or some poor soul has to scrabble around to pick up as much valuable knowledge as they can from the rubble.

But this is not to say that the best time to seek the knowledge in an expert’s head is just before they leave. It’s something we can do at any time, and doing it saves us from relying exclusively on the one person who knows how system X works, or how we deal with customer Y.

One name for this process is knowledge elicitation. Others call it knowledge acquisition. Most obviously, ask them to tell you everything they know. But it isn’t always as easy as that.

  • It is not always easy to persuade an expert to take the initiative to share their knowledge by producing materials themselves – they are often very busy.
  • Sometimes experts have forgotten the reasons for their judgements – they have become rules of thumb (heuristics, tacit knowledge).  It takes a questioning interaction for them to reflect and uncover the core of their expertise.
  • Sometimes experts don’t realise how much they know (another aspect of tacit knowledge) so may assume too much of their audience.
  • The topic may be broad and it may not be clear where to start, what questions to ask, or how to structure the knowledge.

There are many ways to go about elicitation, and to overcome the pitfalls, the crucial thing is to include an active process of getting the knowledge out of them. Here is a summary of the best suggestions I’ve gathered:

  • Just ask them to tell you
  • Interview them
  • Facilitate a workshop
  • Draw out their knowledge informally
  • Observe them at work

Just ask them to tell you

Get the expert to either give you a presentation, or to write something about how they do what they do.

Simply asking about a particular subject is sometimes the easiest way to draw out knowledge. Ideally the requestor chooses a specific subject, shows personal interest in the subject, expresses confidence in the expert, agrees a timeline or deadline and chases it up. The requestor reads or listens, gives feedback and asks questions which prompt further clarification.  The request can come from

  • someone senior (line manager, team leader or project manager)
  • a peer (for example in the community of practice)
  • a learner (e.g. someone new to the project)

The method the expert uses could be:

  • An informal presentation/explanation/knowledge call from an expert (often a virtual meeting, though face-to-face works better)
  • Masterclass – ask an expert to tell the story to a small group of a situation, what they did and why.  Participants ask questions.  The session is recorded and stored in an open-access repository. 
    • Short masterclasses can be incorporated into regular team meetings
  • White papers/blogs – ask an expert to write short documents on aspects of their area of expertise. Some will use Word documents, others may use blogs. A few may wish to share via video. Some will prefer this to the masterclass format.  These can be
    • “How to” and “Why” information for reference
    • Creative ideas for discussion

Interview them

can be as formal or as informal as you see fit. But make sure you know what you’re asking about and how you’re doing this asking. The phrasing of your questions is crucial.

Interviewing the expert puts more emphasis on the interviewer to ask the questions that draw out the knowledge.

  • “Can I pick your brains” is a common opener for an informal interview.
  • It is also common to open a question session via phone, instant message or email.  That may lead to a scheduled 1:1 meeting.
  • Mentoring meetings are an opportunity for expert interviews
  • Regular reviews with a line manager are an opportunity for an informal expert interview
  • When a person is leaving the company, there is a formal exit interview, but don’t wait for that.  As soon as the departure is announced, it is important to prioritise the time of the expert to absorb their knowledge.

In one-to-one settings it can be useful to ask the following types of probes

  • Why would you do that? (converts a statement into a rule). Use the five whys.  Keep asking until you get to the deepest reason why.
  • How would you do that? (generates lower-order rules)
  • When would you do that? Is it always the case? What could vary in the situation that would change the rule? (reveals how general the rule is and may draw out other rules)
  • What alternatives are there?
  • Can you tell me more about …?
  • Who would you ask about…?  Knowing the network of people the expert refers to is an important part of the knowledge.
  • Encourage them to draw diagrams (process flow, connected things, categories)

It is important for the interviewer not to constrain the conversation too much by forcing a line of questioning too quickly.  The process of reflection on the questions needs time.

  • Start by ‘settling down’:
  • Be QUIET! Be a GREAT listener. Don’t interrupt.
  • Ask only open questions one at a time
  • Listen/watch carefully for tacit actions and remarks and help the subject explore the logic behind these actions or comments and rediscover what led them to that selection, choice or decision, by asking appropriate questions.

Prepare the interview “lightly”. The interview should be semi-structured, not tightly planned. Try thinking about the core topic of your interview as a tree trunk, there may be many branches for you to explore, but you’ll always need to return to the trunk to continue your climb or you’ll end up out on a limb!

Be aware that an expert may not know why, and may seek to justify their work, and may give spurious justifications for perfectly valid decisions/rules.

The interviewer is responsible for writing up (or drawing up) the knowledge.  It is very helpful if the output is then reviewed by the expert, for correction and to add additional depth.   Ideally the knowledge is stored in a shared area so that others could find it via search.

Facilitate a workshop

It can be good to gather together one or more experts to create a knowledge output in a workshop format.  Most workshop techniques work best face to face.  A few can work in a virtual meeting session with careful adaptation and extra facilitation skill.

Where the topic is specific, and the question(s) are well understood, consider using

  • After Action Reviews, or Lessons Learned workshops. 
  • Fishbone diagramsMindtools guide.  Allows analysis of cause and effect.
  • Brainstorming
    MindTools guide. Participants contribute ideas freely without initial critique.  Research shows that more and better ideas are generated if the session includes time for individual brainstorming.
  • Learning histories for complex events (MIT guide). Several participants share their perspectives against a consistent framework (the timeline).  A facilitator then brings these perspectives together.  The resultant report is then discussed by all participants in a subsequent call or workshop, adding new observations.
  • Knowledge cafesWikipedia explanation. David Gurteen on benefits. Allocate each topic to a table with a host.  The host facilitates discussion and ideas are recorded on a paper tablecloth or clipboard.  After 15 mins, the group moves to the next table.
  • Gallery walk. Each topic has a poster or stand around the room, with a host.  The host gives a brief presentation and then there is debate.  When the whistle blows, the groups circulate to the next stand. 

Sometimes it is not clear where to start to gather expertise on a broad topic.  In this case, consider starting with

  • Top 10 things. Ask each group to list the top 10 considerations for repairing a fault, planning a project or whatever.
  • Brown-paper exercise (creating and repeatedly sorting/categorising post-it notes) also known as Card Sorting (research guide)

The facilitator is responsible either to write up the output or to appoint a scribe before the workshop begins.  The scribe, often not an expert, usually helps create the charts and visuals in the workshop itself, then finishes them off afterwards. It can be helpful to ask the expert to be the scribe, especially for diagrams, but make sure they have time to tidy up the output afterwards.  A good discipline is for workshop output to be circulated for review within 2 days of the workshop.

Draw out their knowledge informally

Time spent informally with experts can lead to storytelling, debate and comparing notes.  Opportunities may occur at the watercooler or coffee machine, while eating lunch together, when staying away from home with colleagues on business, at the pub or in celebrations or other teambuilding events.  Any of these may be described as a “fireside chat”.

The knowledge shared in informal settings is often hard to document at the time, but be creative: use napkins, paper tablecloths, smartphone audio recordings (with consent) etc.  Good practice is for a learner to make notes shortly afterwards, and to ask the expert(s) to review their output.

Observe them at work

We can learn from experts by observing their actual work. This is sometimes called Protocol Analysis, and can be on-line or off-line.  It can be self-reported or (better) reported by someone else who is shadowing them.  It is important to observe more than one example. Beware that talking while working can interfere with the work itself.

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