The reality is that LinkedIn has been used as a proxy expert network by many for some time now

Ross Dawson, a self-described globally recognized leading futurist, entrepreneur, keynote speaker, strategy advisor, and bestselling author, opining on the state of expert networks.

Not really. It turns out that LinkedIn went down the expert network road some time back, but to no avail. It hired management consultants. It built out a research-staff. It held preliminary discussions with hedge-funds, investment banks, and others, but in the end, it shut it down. So no, it’s not an expert network, and it hasn’t been one for some time now.

Ross is a smart guy. Why the mistake?

The mistake lies in a simple confusion of concepts. LinkedIn is a professional network. It’s organized like a directory. It has experts. You can use it to find experts, but calling LinkedIn an expert network is a lot like calling the membership-directory of the IEEE an expert network. Sure, there are a lot of talented engineers in there. You can even sort them by employer, location, and with the IEEE profile-data, very specific expertise, but at the end of the day, it’s just a more detailed phone-book. It’s a directory, and a directory does not an expert network make.

Expert networks not only allow you to find an expert. That’s the easy part — the part you can do with a directory like LinkedIn, an IEEE directory or the phone book. Expert networks provide tools to facilitate the full life-cycle of an interaction between an expert and a client. These entail the stages over which Ross glosses when he says, “It is a little more effort to negotiate terms and make payments than it is on an existing platform, but it isn’t hard to do.” That’s a lot like saying, “all you really need for a restaurant is some food and a kitchen, right?” Neither statement is all you have to worry about to get started, and neither venture is that easy.

An expert network solves three problems. First, discovery. It surfaces those experts, niche or otherwise, whom you need to know. Second, it manages the engagement from qualification to contracts and compliance to connections to compensation. Third, it builds a repository of all past connections for both experts and clients. It’s the combination of everything – the systems, policies, compliance – that makes it work. Otherwise, it’s just a directory.

LinkedIn has provided a boon to expert networks. They’ve made it immeasurably easier to discover experts and arrange to reach them. Firms like Gerson Lehrman Group, Guidepoint, Coleman Research, Cognolink and others are probably very large clients of LinkedIn’s premium features. LinkedIn has even signed a little discussed, though exclusive and expensive, marketing partnership with DeMatteo Moness, a minor expert network. Notwithstanding the exclusivity of the arrangement, DeMatteo remains a marginal player.

The evolution of expert networks is just beginning. Ross is right to expect changes, but he’s missing some of the detail that will illuminate where the model is actually headed.

He’s not alone, though. The many smokescreens, from the insider trading scandal emanating from so many connections fostered through Primary Global, to the fabulously successful IPO of LinkedIn, have either written expert networks off or suggested that they’re nothing more than a directory with a little more effort. From a competitive standpoint, it’s taken everyone’s eye off the inner-workings of what really makes them tick and scared them from even experimenting with the model. It couldn’t be a better opportunity for companies like Gerson Lehrman Group to consolidate their position in an industry defined by unrelenting growth.