Knowledge management (KM) is big business. According to analysts IDC, the knowledge management sector will be worth $12.7bn by 2005.
With so much money at stake, getting it right is crucial and although organisations differ greatly in terms of size, culture and make up there are some sure-fire ways of making sure that your KM is as effective as possible.
In order to work effectively, corporate portals need to be updated regularly - nobody wants to use a portal that contains lots of obsolete information and stale links - and the company needs to embrace a culture of openness to help staff and promote business continuity.
This is not as easy as it sounds and, for some organisations, getting to the stage where they feel willing and able to share information across departments will be a long and painful process.
Getting buy-in from the senior management as well as the users is also crucial. Although analysts and journalists always carp on about this and it's generally taken as a given, a lot of organisations are still failing to do it. Only paying lip service to users' needs and requirements when setting up a KM system could well land you with a costly white elephant.
Although time is often tight, taking the time to conduct workshops and consultation sessions with users can help secure that buy-in and identify what works and what doesn't.
The trial stages can then be used to clear away as much clutter and as many unhelpful links as possible - after all, managing content effectively and providing ease of access are paramount. Making sure that a knowledge management system is flexible and easy to update should also be a key aim.
Companies' needs, much like the information on the portal itself, are want to change and it is hard to predict how your KM solution will evolve when you deploy it.
One company that believes it has got it right is United Utilities, winner of the Knowledge Management category at the recent Computer Weekly E-business Excellence Awards for its Incident Management Knowledge Exchange.
As Sarah Dean, United Utilities' e-business knowledge manager explains, the portal, which went live in April 2001, acts as "a community workspace for the group of people involved in the management of major incidents", such as pipe bursts and power failures at water treatment works.
Essentially, it allows people and organisations involved in the tackling of major incidents, like scientists, field workers and incident managers to communicate, collaborate and co-ordinate their efforts.
The system provides up to date incident news, easy access and sharing of other necessary information and aids communication with external bodies such as the media or Government bodies.
However, it hasn't been easy. The company didn't get it right first time and has had to build on its experience and learned from its mistakes.
Dean says that previous KM projects at the council lacked success because they failed to address the "softer" cultural and people issues. "Success is 80% dependent on the people side and only 20% on the technology side," she says. So this time round, softer issues were the top priority and "technology acted as the enabler, not the driver".
The council adopted what Dean calls a "community-based" approach, identifying a group of people who were "crying right out for things to change".
According to Dean, the KM project has "dramatically improved" the way people who use it communicate with each other. "Experts can be located, critical information can be dispersed rapidly and people can collaborate in a virtual environment to improve business performance," she says. The company had originally planned for 150 users to use the system but that number has since swelled to 600 as interest grew via word of mouth.
Another benefit is in information sharing. "The project has spread the view that knowledge sharing is not only acceptable but desirable," says Dean, adding that this view is being endorsed by senior management.
Dean says that, in the past, staff were rewarded for being specialists and this led to a culture of information hoarding, whereas "now they are rewarded for knowledge sharing".
So does she have advice for other companies thinking of implementing a KM system or revamping an underperforming one?
"In our opinion you need to start by identifying a business need and it has to meet some personal objectives for the people that are intended to use it, such as making their lives easier," says Dean.
"It also needs to tie in with business strategy. If it doesn't tie in with your business strategy you need to ask yourself why you are doing it."
Runner-up: Uttlesford District Council
The key aims of the committee management information system (CMIS) set up by Uttlesford District Council were to provide users with 24-hour access to ICT facilities from their own homes and to enable citizens to access information about the council's activities via its Web site [uttlesford.gov.uk].
The project is central to the council's efforts to meet the Government's requirements for councils providing services electronically by 2005.
The CMIS system on the council's intranet provides online access to all of the council committee papers, including reports, agendas and minutes, a fully searchable archive of some 3000 items dating back to 1991 and information about elected members, including contact details.
John Mercer, the council's head of IT and audit services, claims that the system is being used by all 350 council staff, including 42 elected members.
The elected members can also gain access to their own pages on the intranet and have 24-hour-a-day remote access, supported by remote working facilities supplied by BT and Cable and Wireless.
Each member has been provided with a laptop, a printer and a second telephone line. According to Mercer, on average, elected members spend 300 hours a month accessing information on the system.
This didn't just happen overnight, however, and the council had to put quite a lot of work into getting user buy-in - especially in the early stages. The council monitored usage of the system by elected members very closely, offering additional training where necessary.
"Extensive training was a key factor to the success of the project," says Mercer. As was making the Web site, intranet and CMIS system easy to use and freely available, thus increasing the feeling of inclusivity. Feedback was also encouraged through the use of a questionnaire.
Runner-up: Cisco Systems
The CiscoCast knowledge management system set up by Cisco Systems UK delivers multimedia messages and corporate PowerPoint presentations to the desktop PCs of every Cisco employee in the EMEA region.
According to Russell Pearson, business manager of CiscoCast, since the system went live in January 2000 it has become the primary vehicle for all high-level communication.
Pearson says that, on average, three to five messages are sent out per week and over 80% - approximately 7000 - of its EMEA employees now use the system.
The system keeps Cisco employees in the EMEA region informed of the strategic direction of the company and as the strategic messages sent via CiscoCast are not available elsewhere users have a compelling reason to use it.
However, this is just one aspect of it, says Pearson. He describes it as a video mail and broadcasting tool that sits on the intranet, sending out tailored, graded rich media messages direct to users.
"That's where the KM comes in," he says. "Users can decide whether the message is relevant." Messages are delivered direct to the desktop and users click on stories that they deem to be relevant or interesting.
As the messages are graded, users can choose the level of depth they require. According to Pearson, "CiscoCast makes e-mail look like something out of the Stone Age."
Cisco is currently looking into the possibility of expanding the service to include resellers and customers. It is also considering using wireless networks and broadcasting messages to handheld devices, having conducted trials using Compaq iPAQs.