Collaborating in an e-world

The company water cooler used to be the place to get some information or personal experience from a co-worker or colleague. But that was before the Internet caught on and spawned geographically distributed companies. Now collaborating around the water cooler will no longer suffice. It is not even a possibility in many instances.

For years, companies have been trying to address the challenge of knowledge management. The problem is that the majority of knowledge rests in people's brains (see Fig. 1). Or as David Owens, vice president and chief knowledge officer at St. Paul Companies, a global commercial insurance company in St. Paul, Minn., puts it, "Most knowledge is between two ears and walks around on two feet." Adds Jonathan Spira, chairman and chief analyst at research firm Basex Inc., New York, "Most companies' most valuable resources walk out the door at 6 or 7 in the evening, and some of them don't come back."

Fig. 1: Where is your data?
Figure 1

Analysts at the Delphi Group found that the largest segment of corporate knowledge resides in employees' brains. Paper documents come in second, with electronic documents not far behind.

How can the information in someone's head be managed? I've often thought it would be nice to have some sort of psychokinetic tape recorder that records my thoughts so that once I'm done thinking them, I don't have to think about them again. They would be written down in a repository that I could access at my convenience. But since technology is not yet in place to handle that type of activity, we must find other means to manage the knowledge in people's heads.

Myriad software companies are addressing this very issue, one that forces them to address other issues such as distributed collaboration and expertise. Companies are realizing that best practices can save them time and money. Unfortunately, the "best practice" of something may be stuck in someone's head, so getting it out can be difficult. In addition, one employee may have a great deal more experience in a particular area than another employee, and identifying the more experienced employee can be quite a task.

The first challenge in dealing with knowledge management is defining it. Various firms perceive the concept differently. Basex surveyed 32 of what it considered "knowledge management" companies. Of those 32, only nine used the word "knowledge" in describing themselves, and only three of those used the words "knowledge management."

"No one would disagree with me that 90% of these companies are knowledge management companies," noted Spira, "but maybe they don't think of themselves that way." Among the companies Basex surveyed were vendors of expertise, portal, intranet, extranet and search engine software. While each firm views knowledge management differently and thus addresses it differently, it covers all of these areas. Perhaps the best definition of knowledge management comes from St. Paul Companies' Owens: "Hire good people and get them talking to one another."

Once it is defined, knowledge management poses many other challenges. One of the most significant is getting people to share what they know. Many people are reluctant to share knowledge because they believe that knowledge is power. That is certainly true. If only one person knows a particular job, they have job security. But what if they are involved in an accident and hospitalized for a while or become very sick? And what if they want to go on an extended vacation? Someone has to cover for them.

While it is true that knowledge is power, it is also true that shared knowledge is powerful. Therefore, we need to look at the situation from a different perspective. We do not lose credibility by sharing information; we actually gain from it. "Knowledge is one of the few things you can give away and still retain yourself," Owens noted.

Mandating that employees sit down at a computer and type in everything they know does not work. People need more focus and direction than that. "If they have to create a document as part of a project, that's one thing," said Bob Nilsson, vice president of U.S. marketing at Orbital Software Inc., Framingham, Mass. "But to create a special one just for the sake of knowledge management is very difficult. It's caused many companies to become skeptical [of] knowledge management as a whole."

To ease that challenge, Orbital Software has taken a question/answer approach to knowledge management. Its Organik software routes questions and E-mails to the people who can actually answer them. It then provides a place on an intranet so that all users at a site can open up a browser and access a knowledge repository of previously asked questions.

When employees have questions, they can type them in and know they will be routed to the appropriate people. Organik also finds answers to similar, previously asked questions or finds people who might be able to answer new questions. "Different people who receive a question can post an answer that will be posted in Organik so others can see it as well," Nilsson explained.

Because employees do not have to document anything in advance, they are relieved of the burden of divulging everything they know in one sitting. For the process to work, however, they must be willing to provide an answer when they are asked a question.

The format of using questions and answers emulates the way people communicate, noted Anders Hemry, director of enterprise performance and chief knowledge officer at Ericsson Research Canada, Montreal. "It's a better way of sharing knowledge than publishing documents or white papers. This puts the burden on the person who has a need for information."

Once people start sharing information, collaboration is the next challenge, and it poses many problems. "Once people start collaborating, they tend to share pretty well," said David Newbold, general manager for discovery technology in Lotus Development Corp.'s Knowledge Management Products Group, Cambridge, Mass.

Geographically dispersed companies realize the most significant challenges in collaboration, including various time zones and language barriers. In order for geographically dispersed collaborative efforts to be successful, people must be willing to listen and learn, willing to contribute, and companies must have the appropriate technology in place.

St. Paul Companies has a knowledge management system that integrates a number of tool sets, including Lotus QuickPlace, Microsoft NetMeeting and four other products. "We integrated various products into one. The user does not know that they're tapping into half a dozen different products," Owens said. The conglomeration looks like a spider web, the shape of which can be changed to include different names of people or communities simply by dragging the mouse around. A learning management system behind this spider web links to PeopleSoft and does a lot of tracking.

The integration of its learning and knowledge management systems allows St. Paul Companies' users to create five types of online communities: project, classroom, centers of expertise, communities of practice and functional communities. Each community has a different template, but they all operate on the same core technology, QuickPlace.

St. Paul Companies is still in a pilot program with its various communities. At press time, it had 20 to 30 pilots underway. The tools are working well, but the company wants to learn how to make these communities work best. By year's end the company expects employees to be able to set up their own communities within 30 seconds or less. St. Paul Companies is not mandating these communities, but rather marketing its knowledge management product to its employees. If a business group thinks it is of value, then it will use it. "Our task is to make sure the tool is user-friendly and of business value," Owens said.

Another challenge for collaboration and knowledge management in general is a mindset change. People typically don't like change. "One of the failings of a lot of enterprise software is they require people to change the way they work," noted Bob Schoettle, vice president of marketing at Intraspect Software, Brisbane, Calif. For knowledge management initiatives to be successful, they need to fit in with the way people are used to working. That is the approach Intraspect takes. Its Intraspect collaborative knowledge management platform integrates with Web browsers and E-mail. The actual workspace is in a browser, but each workspace has an E-mail address assigned to it.

With about 370 employees scattered across the U.S. and Europe, Blue Martini Software realizes the value and importance of collaboration. "Clearly, the ability to collect and exchange information around topics and ideas is a huge productivity gain," said Scott Grant, director of intellectual capital management at the San Mateo, Calif., enterprise CRM software provider.

Blue Martini manages all of its sales, marketing and professional services projects in Intraspect, where it created a customer database. "Before this, we had no way to start up discussion groups on a certain topic on an ad hoc basis," Grant explained. "In professional services we've started the concept of special interest groups, which can now be started and managed within Intraspect."

To find any information in Blue Martini on professional services, sales or marketing, employees must use the Intraspect product. "It's our plan to eventually do that with the rest of the company," Grant added. Although some employees were skeptical of the new technology at first, once they changed, they liked it. Employees typically divide into three groups when new technology is introduced: early adopters, neutrals and early rejecters. The trick is to work with the early adopters and neutrals and get them on board. Then once a company has enough value in the new technology through these employees, luring the early rejecters in is easier.

Another significant challenge in collaboration is finding the right person to answer your questions. The faster you find the appropriate person, the faster you will receive an answer and the quicker an employee can get back to work. Multidivisional, multisectional and geographically distributed companies in particular tend to reinvent several wheels when it comes to this rather than save on their investments.

Most knowledge management software solutions address the issue of expertise and finding appropriate documents on various subjects; finding the appropriate people to answer questions is an additional issue. Lotus Discovery Server knowledge server analyzes and categorizes structured and unstructured information to reveal the relationships between the content, people, topics and user activities in an organization. It also maintains user profiles and tracks end-user activities to identify potential subject matter experts. It discovers the location of things, who knows what, what is relevant and which subjects generate the most interest.

"When looking for expertise," said Lotus' Newbold, "there's always a process to question that expertise. To what extent is that expertise well received and respected?" Lotus Discovery Server's expertise locator tool can help with that. If employees can talk to someone who has already gone through what they are experiencing and can learn from someone else's mistakes and lessons, they can save time and money.

Basex's Spira sees expertise as one of the bright lights in knowledge management. "You could say that expertise might be the hidden killer application for knowledge management," he said. "One of the reasons for this is that expertise makes knowledge management more real because it goes past the theoretical and brings in real elements of what people have done, what their expertise is and so on. Because of the nature of expertise software, you get an immediate sort of response and it's usually from another person. It's connecting people to the experts who can then lead them back to further knowledge."

The knowledge management industry is certainly aiding collaborative efforts in an e-world, but it still has a number of challenges to iron out. Whether you call it knowledge management, community, knowledge sharing or something else, as it matures it will integrate all the pieces. This is already beginning to happen. For example, Toronto-based Hummingbird Ltd. recently partnered with eRoom Technology Inc., Cambridge, Mass., in an effort to increase enterprise-wide collaboration. Similar agreements and partnerships are sure to follow. Basex's Spira anticipates more standards and more integration so that an expertise package is not necessary for expertise; rather, it is part of a whole intranet.

Spira looks forward to friction-free knowledge management. "That's what we're looking at when we get to the point where you don't have to do something special to get to a knowledge management system; it just is," he explained.

"The ultimate success of knowledge management might be the fact that people just stop talking about it," he added. Knowledge management will become such a routine part of every day that we will not see a need to mention it.