The Best Question to Ask an Expert

Today, 10,000 people retired. And, as they walked out those doors for the last time, they took their expertise with them. At 5:00 pm this afternoon, 400,000 years of hard-won knowledge and experience disappeared forever.

If you’re willing to invest a lot of time, money, and effort, some of that expertise can be captured and shared with others. Very often, however, that just doesn’t happen. Usually, the company lacks the resources and know-how to pull it off. Another obstacle is that experts are usually among the most productive employees in the company, so it’s hard to justify taking them away from revenue-generating work for knowledge transfer efforts.

Skepticism also kills these projects in the cradle. Many experts believe that their knowledge is too internal and intuitive to share in any way that others could understand. In many cases, their employers share their skepticism. They’ve tried similar projects in the past and ended up with expensive, clumsy knowledge management systems that are gathering virtual dust on a forgotten server somewhere.

In a previous job, I spent a lot of time doing this kind of work. I received excellent training in expert elicitation from a company called Perigean Technologies. I ended every session by asking a magic question:

If you were me, what questions would you be asking you?

I have lots of theories as to why this question works so well, but I’m not confident in any of them. All I know for sure is that it usually got better responses than any other question I asked.