Rich technologies are the way ahead

Academics at the Cranfield School of Management are continually attempting to get to the bottom of some of IT's most perplexing issues

According to 19th-century author Mark Pattison, "In research the horizon recedes as we advance, and is no nearer at 60 than it was at 20. And research is always incomplete."

Despite Pattison's views, the academics at the Cranfield School of Management are continually attempting to get to the bottom of some of IT's most perplexing issues. An average of four research projects are started each year, often building on previous research as part of an ongoing study. Projects are usually funded by a sponsor.

Highlighted at this month's IT Directors' Forum was a study carried out with Microsoft on UK companies' knowledge management activities, called Releasing The Value Of Knowledge.

One of the strongest messages from this survey is that the state of knowledge management in the UK is widely acknowledged to fall short of its potential, but at the same time, the discipline seems to be disdained at board level.

The report also found that as the amount of unstructured data (office documents, e-mails, intranet and Web pages) mushrooms, one in five companies has expanded its network capacity by at least 75% to cope with the problem.

Results show that of all the areas where knowledge management is of value, organisations are focusing the lion's share of their time on customer-facing applications - an area clearly set to gain in importance.

But the survey warns that customers are becoming increasingly sophisticated and demanding. This will compel organisations to shift from the traditional "make and sell" model to the emerging "sense and respond" paradigm.

Sales and operations are "the most seriously underperforming functions on all of the areas of value creation through knowledge", says the report.

Cranfield's Karin Breu says that sales people are reluctant to share valuable information about a customer or competitor as this is often the deciding factor in winning a deal and therefore earning commission. Breu suggests revisiting commission structures as a way of persuading the sales department to contribute to the value pool.

Performance was benchmarked across four key industries. Overall the public sector was found to be underperforming most, while the financial services sector was the overall highest performer.

The survey established that e-mail, considered the leading technology for knowledge exploitation in the past, is being overtaken by the Internet and intranet environments.

The technology profile of the best-in-class organisations - that is, those organisations leading the way in knowledge management practices - clearly suggests that rich technologies are more effective.

These technologies merge multiple channels and integrate text, audio and video to support the capture and use of personalised, highly contextual knowledge. Future technology environments are likely to move away from primary concern with data and information (lean content) to a focus on knowledge (rich content).

Commenting on these findings, David Bridger of Microsoft's enterprise software group, said, "Rich technologies such as voice recognition and videoconferencing allow companies to digitally replace the features of face-to-face interaction. Not only is data collection more thorough, it also reduces the chance of data or information being misinterpreted."

But one IT director responded, "Won't the use of rich technologies exacerbate the problem of too much information?"

Bridger pointed to advances in search engine technology, such as text query over multiplatform or better use of current technology - for example, filters built into Office's e-mail software - as factors that will reduce the amount of irrelevant information.

Bridger signed off by saying that although the research only took six months to complete, knowledge management is such a fast-moving area that some findings might be out of date and more research required. In this case, at least, Pattison was right: research is always incomplete.

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