Knowledge-sharing to tickle those tastebuds

Few award-winning IT projects can have cost less than the knowledge and information management system at business services...

Few award-winning IT projects can have cost less than the knowledge and information management system at business services company A Recipe for Success. The overall budget for the system that won the 2000 Computer Weekly Knowledge Management Award was £10,000, and the software development consumed just £3,000.

Developing a knowledge management system needn't cost the earth. Philip Hunter traces the steps taken by A Recipe for Success to capitalise on its critical information

It is true that these figures are slightly illusory, in that the company itself offers e-business consultancy and so did not have to hire any staff or buy in expertise. For many bricks-and-mortar businesses, the same system would have cost considerably more because up-front consultancy would have to be hired - and £10,000 does not buy much of that. Such a company would also have had to acquire new staff, retain external consultancy, or develop its own in-house expertise through retraining, just to keep the project rolling forward.

Jeff Hume, director at A Recipe for Success, says that through an innovative use of technology the company was able to take on and beat firms like British Gas, whose annual budget for paperclips alone is probably bigger than its annual turnover.

A Recipe for Success already had the expertise and the £10,000 only had to cover the cost of software, hardware and staff time actually spent on the project. Despite these caveats, it is still an object lesson in how to design and build an effective system within a small budget, with a flexible structure that allows for continual growth in both functionality and scale.

Return on investment

In terms of return on investment, few projects will score as well as this one. Being a small company comprising just 15 people, all highly IT literate and committed to the project, there was never going to be the common problem of obtaining the "user buy-in". Therefore, the benefits of collaborative working and knowledge sharing have come through quickly.

There is also likely to be direct financial benefits by selling the system to clients. Events on this front have been galvanised by the publicity surrounding the Computer Weekly award.

Tonya Hills, director of IT, explains, "After winning the award, our clients have been asking us about it, and now many of them want to buy it from us. So we're going to turn it into a product set."

But this was not in the initial project plan, which was to yoke technology to the cause of collaborative working within geographically dispersed project teams. As Hills points out, A Recipe for Success requires people with often scarce IT or business skills often not available within the vicinity of the head office in Ipswich.

"With 15 of us in 10 or 12 locations, all working different hours, with some programmers working nights, we wanted to visit a place online where we could all find out where we are with a particular project," says Hills.

Therefore, the first phase was to establish a knowledge management system enabling staff, as well as partners and customers, to share information relating to projects as well as more general expertise.

"It's almost like a little gossip area," says Hills. "For each project, we've got a discussion board. Staff have access to it and can put on informal things, such as contact details. Clients can also go on and can see designs, progress made and all the latest documentation, which was the main point of having a central source of information. It has also meant we didn't have to send round huge file attachments all the time and avoided the situation where we never knew who had the right information."

Having this centrally controlled repository of information also gives the company an added selling tool. "We can see when clients haven't got something and can then try and sell it to them," says Hills.

The system is surprisingly sophisticated, given the size of the company and the budget. Access to information is segmented both by project and users.

"There are varying degrees of information which only specific people can see," says Hills. "For example, only directors and the company secretary can see minutes of board meetings."

Information is held in folders, each of which is associated with a list of users allowed to access it. Furthermore, such users, again subject to their status, can update the folders and upload documents to them.

In effect, there is a partnership between users and the people in charge of IT to ensure that content is relevant and kept up-to-date. This is really the only way of providing effective information/knowledge management. The users with the relevant information must be able to create and update content effectively without having to liaise with the IT department every time. But equally, there has to be some central control exercised over content creation and management, to weed out rubbish and at the same time ensure that gaps in the overall content are filled.

For this partnership to work, users as well as the IT staff need to be fully committed. There was no difficulty selling the system to staff, but more effort is required to bring all the customers and partners on board, if only because they are not always aware of its potential or scope.

Identifying activity

To address this issue, A Recipe for Success decided that it must be able to measure each user's activity to identify who is failing to take full advantage of the system's facilities. It would then be possible to target those users, identify why they are failing to take advantage of the system, and take appropriate action. Such action might involve training, the provision of more relevant information, or perhaps just provide a reminder of what is there. This was an essential aspect of the project, whose success depended on total commitment from all parties.

"We do statistical analysis of system activity and from that we can easily identify who isn't using it and to what extent," says Hills. "We can then say to them, 'look we're putting all this information onto the extranet to help you, so why aren't you using it?' Usually it's lack of understanding."

Feedback is sought regularly from all users, who are asked for comments and suggestions for improvements. All the users, including customers, staff and partners, are frequently asked what further information they would like access to. Furthermore, the knowledge management system, and the processes used to maintain it, are revised constantly and discussed at every team meeting.

Overall, the system had a fairly unique set of requirements, combining knowledge and content management with other project specific functions such as scheduling, as well as user monitoring. For this reason, says Hills, it quickly became clear that there was no suitable package on the market.

"Being an e-commerce consultancy ourselves, we knew what was on the market, and while some products fulfilled one or two of our requirements, none met all of them. The other thing was we wanted to expand the system in future, and to do this we wanted full ownership of it to make changes ourselves," explains Hills.

In one important respect, integration of shared diary management with the other knowledge and content functions, few products came up to scratch. "We've got a diary on the extranet, and most products that incorporated a diary didn't have file sharing," says Hills. This would make efficient scheduling of project team meetings difficult.

In any case, most of the available packages from the likes of Broadvision, in content management or Autonomy in knowledge management, are pitched more at larger enterprises, and tend to be priced accordingly. There isn't much around for the £3,000 that was allocated to initial development.

A major design objective was to ensure that the system was sufficiently flexible to meet not just all current needs but also anticipated future developments. The core component is an Access database which is currently hosted by and accessed from the Web site using Active Server Pages.

This arrangement satisfied initial requirements while avoiding the burden of managing the Web site in-house. But there are some limitations. One is that it is not possible to have both incoming and newly created e-mails filed automatically so that they and the information embodied within them can be accessed in future.

"At the moment we save e-mails manually into the shared Vservers server," says Hills. "But we're going to buy our own server, and then we'll look at things like e-mail, so that when they come in, they can be automatically filed."

This will be a significant step forward given the pivotal role e-mail plays for communicating between members of project teams, and the enormous amount of valuable content embodied. But there would still be room for further progress, given that an archive of e-mails is hardly the best-organised repository of information. There will be scope for more finely-tuned categorisation of the information. This will require further effort by users and cannot be entirely automated, though there is potential for intelligent content-based automatic categorisation techniques.

Such techniques should ideally be capable of identifying when e-mails should be deleted immediately, rather than filed. In some cases, e-mails can be deleted as soon as they have been read. In others, e-mails will need to be retained for a short time but subsequently deleted, perhaps when the project to which they pertain is finished. Sometimes, the e-mail will contain information that will remain valuable for a longer period beyond the duration of any specific project.

It is unlikely that the archiving management process can be entirely automated and human assistance will be required. Without this, the e-mail archive would quickly assume unmanageable proportions.

A Recipe for Success has some e-mails that are just messages about other documents, for example, to inform relevant users that a particular file is now up on the system. Such e-mails can safely be deleted as soon as they are read, and often would be better sent as pager alerts or SMS messages. Indeed, A Recipe for Success is looking at delivering such messages in SMS format. "Some clients have asked for that," says Hills.

Another coming development is to allow access to relevant summary information via Palm Pilots. Initially, this would be achieved by synchronising the Palm Pilots with a PC or any other device attached to the network, but this could be done in future via dial-up mobile connections.

By the time such enhancements have been completed, the total cost will be considerably greater than the current total of £10,000. But a challenging benchmark has been set for cost in the annals of award-winning IT projects.

Ready, steady, success!

A Recipe for Success succeeded in building an effective knowledge management system for staff, partners and customers within a small budget and with a flexible structure allowing for continual growth in functionality and scale. The system also supports collaborative working within project teams, with integration between information and diary management.

The five key achievements are:

  • Completion of an effective knowledge management system on time and within the tight budget of £10,000

  • Flexibility to expand and support new functions and also different delivery channels, such as Palm Pilots and Wap phones

  • Support for collaborative working with integrated diary management

  • Complete ownership of the system without dependence on outside software suppliers

  • Potential for additional revenues by selling the software to customers.

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