Tacit Makes the Collaboration Connection

The thing about a knowledge management solution is, it’s tough to get hard data to demonstrate ROI. Even when you know it’s working, how do you quantify the value of technology that allows you to make the most of the experience, skill and expertise your enterprise already has?

Anecdotes, however, abound. David Gilmour likes to tell the one about the energy company that spent a million dollars on a product designed to work on oil rigs to prevent sediment from falling into the wells.

“It failed completely,” Gilmour says. “But it cost them more than a million, because two other rigs in different parts of the world bought the same product, not realizing that it had failed elsewhere in the company. It was only after their third million dollars had been spent on a completely unsuccessful product that they finally connected the dots and recognized the pattern.”

Gilmour says “third million dollars” the way a scout master might deliver the scare line at the end of a ghost story on a camp-out. And a scary story it is, and all too common, especially in large organizations. “Big, complicated companies run disconnected all the time,” Gilmour says. “It’s inefficient and incredibly expensive. Our technology literally fixes disconnects in big organizations.”

Gilmour, who is president and CEO of Tacit Software, prefers not to think of his company as a KM vendor, (they even changed the name from Tacit Knowledge Systems). What Tacit provides is a unique approach to collaboration, one that is particularly suited to large, geographically distributed, and/or complex enterprises. Essentially, the company’s products show companies who should be collaborating, when and why.

“The biggest problems around collaboration are not actually about how you collaborate,” Gilmour says, “which is what everybody in the collaboration business seems to be talking about. We see the big problem in these types of companies to be the who, when and why of collaboration, and the process of forming the connections that can lead to people working together.”

That’s the problem Tacit’s ActiveNet product line is designed to solve. ActiveNet continuously processes e-mail, documents and other business communications, and automatically “discovers” each employee’s work focus, expertise and business relationships. “We mine the association of people to unstructured data to build a profile of the person,” Gilmour explains. “Our goal is to make it impossible for two people who might benefit from making a connection in the workplace to miss out on that chance,” Gilmour says.

For Scott Shaffar, director for knowledge management in global defense company Northrop Grumman Corporation’s Integrated Systems group, facilitating that kind of intra-enterprise interaction isn’t so much a goal as his raison d’etre. Integrated Systems is one of seven operating units within the company. As a premier aerospace and defense systems integration organization, it designs, develops, produces and supports network-enabled integrated systems and subsystems optimized for use on networks.

About five years ago, Shaffar’s group relied on a kind of in-house white pages application to link its 15,000 employees. It required people to enter and update their profiles, which described their experience, education and what products they’d worked on. But that app was only as good as the last update. “We were looking for something that was more dynamic and automatic,” Shaffar says, “something that would capture what’s going on right now in the organization and give people the ability to connect with others and increase their organizational awareness.”

Shaffar liked ActiveNet’s ability to produce useful profiles in a short period, and its ability to represent what people do and are interested in accurately. But he was worried about how the employees would react to the product’s scanning of their e-mail and other documents.

To ameliorate those kinds of concerns, Tacit employs a process the company calls “brokering,” which Gilmour likens to a single blind date. “We connect up to the e-mail server and get copies of your e-mail messages,” he explains. “They get analyzed, the computations get done and then the e-mail is destroyed, so there’s no copy of it. The information about you that we learn is kept private to you. Even your systems administrator, and certainly other employees, doesn’t get to see what’s inside that profile. It’s locked up.”

Shaffar finds it hard to quantify the value of the kinds of connections facilitated by the ActiveNet product in his organization, but he believes they are invaluable. A recent example he points to involved an employee working on the company’s proposal for NASA’s Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV). Northrop Grumman and The Boeing Company are teaming to compete for a chance to design and build the CEV, which is the first crewed element in NASA’s new Constellation Systems, a collection of human and robotic space systems for travel to the moon, Mars and beyond.

“He did a search on the topic of ‘space habitat,’ thinking that there was no one in the company with any expertise in that area,” Shaffar says. “But to his surprise, there were, and he made the connection within a few minutes. This is vital expertise that turned out to be right here in another part of the company. What’s the value of that? It’s tremendous.”

Shaffar says that Northrop Grumman’s corporate-wide knowledge management counsel, which meets to share best practices, is currently considering implementing ActiveNet to connect the company’s approximately 125,000 employees.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].