Harnessing the Web

Sue Norris explains why your knowledge management system is only as good as the data it contains.

Sue Norris explains why your knowledge management system is only as good as the data it contains.

To embark on a knowledge management project is to miss the very point of knowledge management.

These days the only credible approach to KM is to forget the terminology and focus on how it is you think your firm might benefit from more effectively harnessing its corporate data. It's not enough to realise that knowledge is a company's most valuable asset.

If you're going to expose your organisation to the hassle and expense of capturing and organising knowledge and making it available, you had better have some inkling about what you're going to do with it.

"We've gone beyond a knowledge management market," says Jeffrey Mann, European e-business analyst at analyst firm Meta Group. "KM is more to do with politics, culture and management; it's not a discreet practice and it's certainly not a technology solution."

Hype about KM peaked 18 months ago, although it has been a popular term among management consultants for as long as the latter have existed. Says Mann: "This was the high point for KM system purchases, but then the interest faded as disillusionment set in."

What went wrong, he explains, is that companies believed they could buy a product, such as Lotus Notes or a search engine, and it would solve a problem. They were sorely disappointed. "Not enough thought had been given to what they wanted to achieve."

Because of the diversity of possible goals, confusion has arisen as to what constitutes knowledge management. Does it include CRM, or business intelligence tools, for example? What about content management? The truth is that all or none could be relevant - it depends what the company's priorities are. What types of knowledge are going to be managed and with what intent?

If it's only customer-related data, then perhaps your goal for your KM system is intelligent CRM. If it's making your call centre more responsive, yet without raising overheads, it could be a more intelligent helpdesk application you're after.

The Internet, of course, has had a major effect on companies' attitudes to knowledge management. Not only has the Web led to the development of more advanced knowledge management tools, it has also raised users' expectations about access to information and resources.

As a result, interest in KM is on the rise again. "Internet protocols make access to materials generally much easier," says Mann. "Now, you can use Web browsers to access everything, not just the Web."

People expect to be able to access whatever information they need, at whatever time of day and from whatever location, to enable them to write a report, make a decision or fix a problem.

To meet these demands, organisations have two main challenges - how to make accessible the information contained within their IT and manual filing systems; and how to capture and disseminate the potentially even more valuable knowledge that remains trapped in the heads of its highly trained experts. In an ideal workplace, all of this knowledge would be readily available to the employee who needs it, at the launch of a Web browser.

Mike Davis, a senior research analyst at Butler Group, believes the economic downturn coupled with the shockwaves caused by the events of 11 September, have given organisations a new impetus to maximise their knowledge assets, in case they ever lose their original source.

While back-up and disaster recovery takes care of pre-recorded knowledge assets, it only addresses half of the problem.

"When companies downsized their operations in the past, and let go their middle managers, many found they had removed their corporate memories," he says.

"At British Gas, for example, they would come across a technical problem, look around to see who could fix it, and found out they'd retired him without capturing the wealth of knowledge he represented. It's also been said that if Nasa were asked to put a man on the moon now, they wouldn't be able to do it. They didn't capture enough knowledge and detail at the time."

Yet it's not enough to simply gather information. As much as Internet technologies have freed up a vast array of previously untapped knowledge resources, statistics abound about the information overload being suffered by employees and the negative impact this is having on their ability to do their jobs.

In his book Information Anxiety 2, Richard Saul Wurman likens the knowledge worker's situation to a thirsty person condemned to drink from a fire hydrant. Says Don Ross, director of business development at KM software specialise KMS: "Information is gushing at us. There are something like seven million new Web pages coming online every day. We need to filter this information more efficiently so users are not overwhelmed."

Search engine specialist Inktomi recently sponsored an IDC white paper: The high cost of not finding information, which estimates that an enterprise employing 1,000 knowledge workers wastes at least $2.5-3.5m each year searching for non-existing information, failing to find existing information, or re-creating information that can't be found.

"We've also done a lot of research into how many search boxes people use every day in their work, and we've found the average user can be using between seven and 10," says Henrik Hansen, European director of marketing for search products at Inktomi. These might include some kind of portal, a market research site and an internal phone directory, for example. Inktomi has sought to simplify this scenario by providing users with a single search interface to all these various information sources.

Hansen notes that, spoilt by the Internet, the average worker now expects internal information searches, of databases and the like, to be as accessible and user-friendly as navigating the Web. To this end, Inktomi provides a database module that allows standard, structured databases to be indexed as though a series of Web resources.

One of the main motivators for applying some structure to corporate knowledge is to make knowledge workers more efficient. A long-standing criticism of Web search engines has been the seemingly indiscriminate nature with which they throw up search results, leaving the user to trawl through hundreds or thousands of site documents, of which only a handful may be genuinely relevant.

As search technologies continue to develop, there is a growing emphasis on being able to profile individual users, monitor the types of information they seek and apply the feedback intelligently to make that user's future attempts at material gathering more efficient.

Another driver for more efficient knowledge management is enabling better customer service without over-extending a company's overheads. This is one of the reasons knowledge management tools have sold readily into call centres.

These are notoriously expensive to run, yet represent a vital front line to customers. Knowledge management systems applied here can make more useful information available to the operators, enabling calls to be handled more efficiently, and without recourse to a second party, keeping costs down.

If the operator is armed with the information to make a decision during a first call, the customer has a more satisfying experience and the company has one less repeat call to deal with. Microsoft UK claims it has cut 28% of calls being transferred by its helpdesk operators as a result of deploying a knowledge management system, and that it has seen a 13% increase in customer satisfaction.

Others are using knowledge management to give more power to their customers, so that they can direct their own help. When the customer information group of Sony's business to business division (which supplies media equipment to television companies) began implementing an extranet two years ago, one of its main drivers was improving customer service, yet without increasing costs.

"We wanted a repository of information to support our customers online," says Derry Newman, the group's director. "If a camera is damaged during a news shoot, the operator can find a quick solution at any time of day or night. We've given customers 24x7 access to support."

Lucas Arts, maker of Star Wars, offers a similar online support system to its games consumers, through an 'Ask Yoda' feature that allows customers to document their problems using plain English.

Market analyst firm Giga notes that a Web-based support system is 10-times cheaper to provide than a response via a call centre. These kinds of figures are important, since user organisations and market analysts alike are finding it difficult to quantify the return on investment associated with knowledge management, which in turn makes it difficult for companies to justify what can be an expensive and time-consuming undertaking.

Sony has experienced this problem. Says Newman: "The knowledge management side alone is hard to cost-justify because the real gains are in the softer area of customer satisfaction and retention, so we rolled out an e-business application as well to provide the fiscal benefits. Here, we do have return on investment - by reducing the volume of calls from our distributors to our call centres we have made significant cost savings."

At Sony, knowledge management has become a way of life. When the company became serious about this in 1999 it set itself a two-year target to change its culture and processes. While Sony used external IT help from Axon Group and IS Solutions to accomplish the software development on time, it hired an internal team of five to manage the knowledge itself which is retained permanently. "We had to make it part of our culture," Newman notes.

The pan-European extranet system, which uses Broadvision's content management software, went live in January 2000 with 20 people trained to input their expert knowledge. Now some 250 employees actively use it. A training team was formed and journalists were brought in to provide templates for those publishing their knowledge. Translators and proof-readers have also been brought on board to ease the burden.

"There was natural resistance to the extra work at first, but we allowed the time for a gradual change," says Newman.

"Objectives have been built into everyone's appraisals, the importance of the system has been widely publicised across the organisation, it has been driven by the company president and customer feedback is passed on as a source of motivation. Our staff are updating the content on a daily basis, and it's all indexed, cross-referenced and searchable. We have 6,500 pieces of content in the system and it's growing rapidly."

Key KM technologies and the major players
  • 'Explicit' KM software (managing documents and databases - information that already exists electronically). Includes document management, content management and search and retrieval technologies, with key players including KMS, Documentum, Open Text, Verity, Autonomy, Inktomi, Convera, Active Navigation, Semio and Broadvision.

  • 'Tacit' KM software, otherwise known as expertise identification and query routing. This harnesses previously unrecorded information, such as that stored in experts' heads. Vendors to watch: Ask Me, Tacit, Orbital Software and Raging Knowledge.

  • Email mining and searching. Lotus is a key player is this category, which sits in between explicit and tacit knowledge management.

  • Portals/enterprise information portals (EIPs). These are increasingly being seen as a means of giving more coherence and context to knowledge by adding a user-friendly front-end to unstructured content. Pure-play portals vendors include the likes of Plumtree, CoreChange, Epicentric and Hummingbird; application portal vendors include most of the big software vendors such as SAP, IBM and CA; while portal component providers include Autonomy, Active Navigation and Netegrity.

  • Other related areas: collaboration software (offering chat/white-boarding/workflow between groups of co-workers); business intelligence (the ability to mine structured information and draw trend information); and just-in-time e-learning (the ability to give users instant online access to crash courses on the subject of their choosing, from how to write a report to how to fix a particular type of fault). Then there are specific applications which benefit from better management of knowledge, such as CRM or call centre/helpdesk applications

The benefits of harnessing corporate knowledge
  • You lose your dependence on key staff who might leave and take their knowledge away

  • Less time is spent re-inventing the wheel

  • Junior staff are empowered to make informed decisions and better serve customers

  • Ad-hoc training can be made available through just-in-time e-learning, making staff more efficient and confident in what they do

  • Cost savings will be plentiful as employee time is saved by better information filtering and targeting

  • Customers receive a better service as the information and knowledge they seek is placed closer to them

Read more on Web software