You, SME, and everyone you know

I had thought my data entry days were behind me. Oh, how wrong I was.

My employer is working on a database that’s filled with useful information about the IT industry, and the back end of the platform is up and running. I’ve worked on directory systems before, and I can say without being biased that this is a pretty well-designed interface. They’ve also loaded in the content, but it needs to be matched to categories. And because that classification relies on the judgement call of someone with industry experience, the task fell to me. Sometimes, being a subject matter expert (SME) sucks.

I don’t think this project is all that abnormal. Even if you have a great search algorithm and some tools to automate the indexing, a certain degree of knowledge management tends to be crucial to most directories. What’s maddening is that while the end result of such a system can be easy as pie for users, the formative stages of development tend to be more manual than we’d like. Companies draw upon SMEs for this work because they have to, not because they think it’s a good use of their time (My employer, understanding this, generously offered this as a freelance project. Not a lot of companies would be that smart).

You can, of course, farm the task out to the users themselves, but this can be frought with problems. I should know. At my previous employer we tried to take a paper-based directory we published once a year and turn it into an online platform. We imagined happy contributors logging in and updating their profiles in real time, kind of like the way celebrities and politicians have publicists to edit their Wikipedia entries. It didn’t happen, and not just because the interface was lousy. (And boy, was it lousy.) People were lazy, they didn’t understand the limitations of the system, and we didn’t have adequate staff to address the support issues.

Now, with wikis and related technologies, managing user-generated content is a little user, but not to the point where we can leave enterprise SMEs alone. That’s because their role involves not only matching or verifying what ends up in our electronic repositories but fine-tuning the taxonomies and classification engines. When you start classifying, for example, you try to work within the parameters you’re given. Then, as time goes on, you realize that some items just don’t fit a category, and other categories should be modified or moved somewhere else. Then, if you’re the SME, you realize half-way through the project that you’ll have to go back and update all the listings that were classified incorrectly because you didn’t have these insights right away.

Eventually we’ll see more directories and IT systems developed where users can suggest or guide changes to the administration as well as the content. The hitch is that the ability to involve others doesn’t mean they’ll be as accountable as an SME, as an employee, tends to feel. User-generated content is great, but for now we still need some designated users.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Shane Schick
Shane Schick
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