A dozen years ago, former Lotus Development CEO Jim Manzi used to make extravagant claims for the ROI of Lotus Notes. It might as well be infinite, he would enthuse, because there was no way to quantify the productivity gains flowing from better use of the assets lodged between people's ears.
Bzzzt. Try again. That ROI might just as easily have been minuscule or even negative -- and how would you know? Although numbers are hard to come by, we can we see in hindsight that results were all over the map. Some companies really did use Notes to support a vibrant collaborative culture, enriched with shared databases and discussions. Many used it as little more than an e-mail system.
The challenge was and is to make more of the routine communication flowing through the enterprise available -- for data mining, social network analysis, and general awareness. What's obviously good for the enterprise, however, is not so obviously good for the individual, and therein lies the rub. Knowledge is power, and many people are (not surprisingly) reluctant to share that power.
Somehow we've got to engineer environments in which the sharing of knowledge feels like an empowering behaviour. There's no silver-bullet solution, but current technological and cultural trends provide clues that point toward a brighter future for KM (knowledge management).
One of the cultural trends, blogging, reached a fever pitch with Google's recent acquisition of Pyra Labs, maker of the software that powers the popular Blogger.com Web site. Here's the background on how this deal could fire up enterprise KM: Google's relevance engine, based on its proprietary PageRank algorithm, values documents (and by association, their authors) according to the number of links they attract. Because hyperlinks are the currency of the blog world, bloggers thrive in Google's hyperlink-based economy. And they compete fiercely for high rankings on Google and the Weblog-oriented search engines and aggregators.
To win at this highly addictive game, you have to share lots of useful information; your reward is measured in terms of reputation. In this environment, the Google Search Appliance becomes dramatically more relevant. If you invite Google behind your firewall today and point it at your intranet, the results are not likely to be very exciting -- the content tends to be static and not densely interlinked.
That could change dramatically as "k-logging" -- the enterprise flavour of blogging -- catches on. Google Search Appliance's value is proportional to the amount, quality, and interconnectivity of the content it can see, and so is the value of the k-logging software that produces that content. Put these together (something Google could do thanks to the acquisition of Pyra) and you can, in theory, give people incentive to share information and empower and reward them for doing so, thereby addressing a concern that previously kept KM from its full potential.
Google has announced no such strategy, however, and it's far from certain that the reputation-based knowledge economy sustained by Google and Weblogs can scale down to the enterprise. It sounds odd to say that, mostly because we often talk about scaling up enterprise apps, but the Google/Weblog phenomenon, like Usenet before it, is a game played on a world stage. For even the largest enterprises, it will be hard to get k-logging to reach critical mass. Complementary techniques will be required, and a variety of these are appearing on the market.
What k-loggers do, fundamentally, is narrate the work they do. In an ideal world, everyone does this all the time. The narrative is as useful to the author, who gains clarity through the effort of articulation, as it is to the reader. But in the real-world enterprise, most people don't tend to write these narratives naturally, and the audience is not large enough to inspire them to do it.
There is, however, a certain kind of person who has a special incentive to tell the story of a project: the project managers, who are among the best power users of Traction Software's enterprise Weblogging software, according to Traction co-founders Greg Lloyd and Chris Nuzum.
"Having a place where that narrative can be recorded, then elaborated by commentary and question and answer, creates a very rich opportunity for people whose job it is to structure the narrative and to be the communication hub," Lloyd says. The Traction toolset makes it easy for project managers to collect e-mail and documents, to inject them into the system, categorise them, and to publish summarised views to intranet Web pages, e-mail subscribers, and the RSS (Rich Site Summary) feeds preferred by a small but growing number of k-loggers.
There will always be a need for automatic ways to propagate awareness within and among teams. With this, knowledge that is not explicitly shared can nevertheless be found and made available. Completing this task, while at the same time respecting individuals' privacy, is the challenge taken up by Tacit Knowledge Systems. The company's flagship product, KnowledgeMail, builds profiles of people's expertise -- and their collaborative relationships -- by analysing the flow of e-mail. It associates people with topics (sets of terms) and then brokers connections among people with specific affinities and those who are deemed expert in that particular field.
To address privacy concerns, KnowledgeMail users control which of these affinities are visible in the public profile, which is encrypted and not readable by anyone, even the system administrator, without the user's permission. Because administrators require read access to the mail store to build profiles, you might think this level of protection is akin to the proverbial "screen door on the submarine", jokes Tacit's CEO David Gilmour. "But we don't see it that way," he says. "When you distil from the e-mail a profile that is much more concentrated and potent, users have greater concerns -- as they should."
The same protections also apply to Tacit's forthcoming ActiveNet -- which the company describes as a tool-agnostic, "active collaboration network". E-mail messages and other documents such as those in Notes, SharePoint, or Weblogs are fed into ActiveNet and are organised into topical "hotlists" that drive a supply-and-demand market for contacts and information. The topics in your public profile define a supply of expertise in those areas; other users who construct similar profiles create a demand; the system offers to connect those whose profiles intersect.
The Lotus Discovery Server takes a similar approach, leveraging the presence awareness of Lotus Sametime to connect users in real time when possible. Discovery Server differs, however, in its more formal approach to the knowledge taxonomy that's used to categorise documents and affinities.
That kind of upfront investment dooms content-oriented KM systems, Tacit's Gilmour argues. But David Kajmo, Discovery Server's product manager, pushes back, saying: "Rather than bombard you with lists of keywords, we attach well-defined names to the topics we propose." It's best when experts tweak these controlled vocabularies, Kajmo adds, but in many cases a basic taxonomy is already evident in the form of categorised Notes databases or even the naming conventions applied to directories on a file server.
Bottom-up vs top-down taxonomy is an old, ongoing KM struggle. But the emerging architecture of business process automation may help us cut that Gordian knot. XML documents, produced and consumed by Web services but also by people running a new generation of XML-savvy applications, will be the currency of the information economy. Richly structured, easily captured, and embedded in well-defined business contexts, they'll be a godsend for tools that mine knowledge from documents.
Products like the Lotus Discovery Server and Tacit'sActiveNet can already find expertise in the enterprise and map relationships by analysing e-mail and intranet documents. The next step: applying these techniques to voice communication.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Test centre perspective: Products like the Lotus Discovery Server and Tacit'sActiveNet can already find expertise in the enterprise and map relationships by analysing e-mail and intranet documents. The next step: applying these techniques to voice communication.
Business case: Corporate blogs may be ushering in a new era of voluntary communication critical for KM. Knowledge that people don't publish can, alternatively, be deduced from documents and message traffic -- if you take necessary privacy precautions.
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