by Scott Spanbauer

Modern Knowledge Management Applications

Dec 01, 200610 mins
Enterprise Applications

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.

Charged with addressing these communication bottlenecks and fostering a culture of open communication, Assistant Director of Corporate Communication Andrea Austin found an answer in the form of corporate blogging: This promised to put information out in the open, where anyone could find it.

The problem with e-mail, according to Austin, is one of reach: “You may be aware of only some subset of people that may have an interest in what you’re working on,” she notes. Sharing information via a blog brings those people back into the loop. “You’re not determining and limiting who your potential audience may be,” she adds.

Not just any blogging application would do, however. Because Northwestern Mutual is part of a highly regulated industry, it must be ready to produce a complete record of all communications at any time. The company chose iUpload’s Customer Conversation System, because it combines Web-based blogging and content management with enterprise security, workflow and regulatory compliance tools. Northwestern especially liked its extensive versioning capabilities.

“We need to be able to document at any point in time that we know exactly what content has appeared in anything that we produce,” says Austin. “We couldn’t have moved forward with this application if it did not have that capability.”

Moving forward was also easy because iUpload dovetailed with Northwestern Mutual’s existing user authentication software to ensure a single sign-on process for users. Finally, because the blogs are externally hosted on iUpload’s servers, IT gains flexibility and can free up resources to work on other projects, as opposed to managing blogs on the company’s own hardware, Austin says.

The costs of a blogging tool like this one don’t even compare to those of traditional KM systems, which easily run into the millions; iUpload Customer Conversation System Enterprise Edition starts at $1,500 per month for 100 users. (Smaller groups can get going with iUpload Express Edition, which starts at $250 per month for 10 users.)

Northwestern Mutual’s experience echoes the larger trend among KM 2.0 apps: A business unit sought out a tool to solve a specific, tactical KM problem, in this case, opening up communications (as opposed to establishing a formal, overarching KM program). Northwestern’s IT department helped the business unit users navigate the technical choices and select iUpload among several blogging tools. Both users and IT liked the solution to the tactical problem. This scenario is a long way from the old model for KM, where users often were unilaterally presented with a complex KM system by IT.

Northwestern considers itself still in the early phase of its experience with iUpload, with about 100 people actively blogging since an enterprisewide rollout to 5,000 users in June. But it’s working well, Austin says, to jump-start collaboration and spark a larger change in the corporate culture. “This is the first time we’ve had a grassroots application that allowed employees to share what they’re working on directly,” says Austin.

Share Thy Neighbor’s Expertise

Sometimes corporate knowledge remains locked up in employee files and inboxes even when other knowledge management tools are in use. For a couple of years now, Procter & Gamble has been looking for new ways to retrieve these internally exiled intellectual riches, says Arthur Hart, section manager of P&G’s information and decision solutions department. He tried out several “expertise finding” KM applications designed to index and publish mail and files from end user PCs. These failed because they required the users to keep their own profiles of expertise up to date, which they never remembered or had time to do, he recalls. Other programs published too much of the data they discovered, and employees perceived them as an invasion of privacy.

Hart eventually heard about a similar program that combines automatic discovery of corporate expertise with user control over privacy. Tacit’s Illumio, available as of Nov. 15, is a Web-hosted information broker that accepts information requests, such as, “How do you hire good employees?” and sends them out to other users. Individual users may optionally install one of two desktop search utilities, Google Desktop and Microsoft Desktop Search, which Illumio queries for answers to requests. However, Illumio doesn’t just send your data out; no information leaves your computer unless you explicitly agree to send it out.

Illumio consists of a Web-based host site run by Tacit, the Google or Microsoft search software installed on your PC that digs up data, and the Illumio client software, also running on your PC, that acts as a broker between the two. The Illumio client forwards requests from other Illumio users to the desktop search tool, then asks for your permission to send out the data discovered. According to Tacit, Illumio will come in several flavors. The standard version, for use in public groups via the Internet, will be downloadable for free. Pricing of a managed, private group option with added controls, for enterprise users, had not been set at press time. (Qualifying enterprises that sign up in 2006 can get an extended free trial, as a reward for early adoption, the company says.)

Hart, who has been beta testing Illumio since June, hasn’t made the final decision whether to recommend it for use at Procter & Gamble. He’d like to do a bit more testing. “We believe Illumio might solve the problem if we could get a large percentage of the organization to install a desktop search utility and use it,” Hart says.

“You have to ask if the tool will fit in your corporate culture,” he says. Ultimately, success will depend on how willing employees are share the information that Illumio digs up, he adds.

Solve Document Dilemmas

One of the driving forces behind Web 2.0 is the virtual office—teams of far-flung experts collaborating online to create a whole greater than the sum of its contributors. When Denise Senter-Loyola, a principal with business consultancy Milestone Group, needed to get her virtual marketing and sales team members to collaborate on creating some key documents, she first used a Web-based intranet for document management. That failed as content grew and folder hierarchies became cumbersome. Soon, team members stopped contributing content. “People gave up because they had to log on and make all of the decisions about categorizing,” Senter-Loyola says.

Finding the most recent version of a document required extra work as well—resulting in productivity losses and missed deadlines when team members mistakenly worked from the wrong version of a document.

She found a better take on Web-hosted document management in Koral, a newly released Web-based tool that lets users share and collaborate on documents from any location. Koral is notable because it does much of the heavy KM lifting for you, categorizing documents and notifying collaborators of new versions automatically.

When you upload files to your team’s private Koral workspace, the service searches them and suggests tags—categories you’ll use later to find documents relating to a particular subject. And borrowing from another Web 2.0 buzz technology, Really Simple Syndication, Koral doesn’t wait for you to come looking for documents it knows you’re interested in. Subscribe to a particular document, and Koral notifies you when it is updated. Subscribe to a team member (or a person with expertise similar to yours), and it notifies you when that person publishes new documents to the workspace.

“Because of the nature of our work, it caught on virally,” says Senter-Loyola, who has been using a prerelease version of Koral for about three months and plans to upgrade to access some of the enterprise-level permission features. There is no end user license fee for Koral, but the company plans to charge between $15 and $45 per user per month for access to the enterprise-level editing and security controls. Koral also integrates with via Salesforce’s AppExchange platform.

Senter-Loyola reports tangible results from Milestone Group’s switch to Koral last summer, noting that it cut staff hours and the cost of producing documents by approximately 20 percent on the first start-to-finish project. “The system is actually being used by the organization,” she states.

A Winning Pitch

A KM system that’s “actually being used”—this kind of language hints at the skepticism both users and CIOs have had about KM for years. But apps like Illumio and Koral could win enterprise users over one workgroup at a time via viral adoption

One final bit of good news: Users say the new, simpler KM tools make it easier to justify the investment to your fellow C-level executives.

“It can be very difficult to make a pitch to senior management about why knowledge management is important, because it’s not real to them,” explains Northwestern Mutual’s Austin. Now, she just shows them blog users engaged in explaining their projects to coworkers.

Scott Spanbauer is a freelance writer and contributing editor to PC World.

Edited by Laurianne McLaughlin