Tacit Makes the Collaboration Connection
- By John K. Waters
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
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,”
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
“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.
John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached