CIO — Business runs, by default, on e-mail. It’s always there, and it just works, so we end up using it for everything—as a telephone, as a filing cabinet and as a conference room. But the trouble with e-mail is that it happily gobbles up our ideas, crucial documents and business acumen and doesn’t give them back.
So why haven’t enterprisewide knowledge management tools caught on like wildfire? There’s one main problem, says Gartner VP of Research Jeffrey Mann: Users and IT administrators hate them. Sophisticated KM products like EMC Software’s Documentum put the burden of management on the users, who must take additional steps to access documents and register them with the system. And some IT departments dread the arrival of Microsoft’s more user-friendly SharePoint because of its hunger for in-house server and support resources.
But recently, a new wave of smaller, lighter and less expensive tools has started to go where the larger KM systems often don’t—bringing corporate knowledge back out into daylight.
Borrowing from blogging, file sharing and other successful Web 2.0 ideas, new options like iUpload’s Customer Conversation System, Tacit Software’s Illumio and Koral’s eponymous collaboration tool aim to help companies solve specific KM problems without forcing additional work or structure on collaborators.
Attention, CIOs: A notable aspect of this new generation of knowledge management tools is the way they offer themselves for casual involvement. "It’s not as huge a commitment to use any of these things as it is when you have to set up a server, and install it and license it," says Gartner’s Mann.
Acting independently, and without need of server space or tech support, business units can simply try out the new KM systems, sometimes in stealth mode. "In many cases they don’t have to sell it to IT, they just go and do it," notes Mann. "You just [use] a credit card, or it’s free." Now’s a good time for CIOs to get up to speed on what these apps can do.
Spur Grassroots Collaboration
Until last year, one of the knowledge management problems facing insurer Northwestern Mutual was the way the company’s formal hierarchical structure and communication channels often inhibited information flow across departmental boundaries. Relying heavily on e-mail and structured reporting systems, employees tended to send information up the chain of command, in hopes that the people on top would take action and disseminate the results back down and across to leaders in other departments. Naturally, this often prevented one department from knowing about related projects under way in other departments, making it difficult to coordinate efforts or learn from what others were doing.