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KM PAST AND FUTURE: Web 2.0 kicks it up a notch

This article appears in the issue January 2008, [Vol 17, Issue 1]
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The primary technologies that support knowledge management (KM) are well understood and widely used, but have been limited in the past by lack of flexibility. Incorporation of social networking capabilities derived from Web 2.0, however, is now enhancing those foundational solutions and adding greater interactivity into the KM environment. Those and other new capabilities are, in fact, moving KM much closer to an early vision of KM as providing free-flowing, vital information in a way that is adaptive and user-driven.

Enterprise content management (ECM), business process management (BPM) and business intelligence (BI) all developed well over the last decade. Many employees in a diverse set of industries know what those solutions do and are using them on a daily basis. However, the systems leaned toward the static rather than the dynamic. ECM systems, for example, provided reliable repositories in which to store official documents. But they were expensive, time-consuming to deploy and sometimes difficult to use. In the long run, only a small percentage of a company’s intellectual assets ended up in a formal ECM system. Although those documents represented critical information needed for compliance, technical documentation or other purpose, much information that could also have been useful was not shared throughout
the enterprise.

In BPM, the focus was on automating routine tasks, which saved companies substantial time and money. But if modifications in process were needed, the IT department had to take a major role; users could not create new processes. BI solutions allowed power users to design and produce reports, but the analyses had to be defined ahead of time. Changing the parameters also meant a trip to the IT department. The need for programming impaired the ability of a company to adapt to new circumstances in a short amount of time, and limited the number of people who could help the company react.

KM is now being turned on its head, driven to a much greater extent by the broad user base rather than being mandated primarily from above. Many of the innovations are incorporating social networking capabilities. A good example is provided by blogs and wikis. Often
installed as rogue software initially, they were inexpensive, easy to deploy and allowed users to contribute content easily. Now, IT
departments are evaluating them for strategic use in the enterprise. The goal is to continue to offer easy publishing and management, while meeting enterprise realities for permission controls. In addition, the potential for having many wikis create innumerable silos of information would counteract the benefits of ease of use.

To make the transition from individual to enterprise usage, Web 2.0 products need to have several key features. "They need to scale to large groups, of course," says Jordan Frank, VP for marketing and business development at Traction Software, which developed an enterprise blog/wiki solution called TeamPage. "In addition, they need to have authentication capability, to integrate seamlessly with other applications and to operate across the entire enterprise."

Traction’s TeamPage dynamically organizes pages to let users view wiki entries in a variety of ways, including by headlines or over a timeline, and can access content from other wikis in the enterprise, filtering it according to permissions. A new feature in TeamPage’s editing process lets reviewers navigate and search the system in "draft" mode without disturbing the latest version of the content. That capability is important for compliance requirements and situations where more than one user needs to edit the pages.

Search solutions are also blending traditional approaches with Web 2.0 functionality. Velocity 6.0, released in October by Vivisimo, provides a number of enhancements that foster user participation. For example, it allows users to vote on whether a search result was useful. That information can then be used to adjust relevancy rankings in future searches. Velocity also lets users post comments about the target documents they have read. When a document is found by other users, those comments may help them save time or redirect the search by providing an opinion that can be read quickly.

Another way that Velocity fosters interactivity is by allowing users to add their own tags, to create a "folksonomy" that augments the formal taxonomy. If completely unregulated, the results could be chaotic, but Velocity combines structure with flexibility.

"The most effective way of incorporating tags contributed by users," says Rebecca Thompson, VP of marketing at Vivisimo, "is to provide a set of options from dropdown menus, but also to allow new tags where the existing ones are not adequate. Editors can then normalize new tags to make the new combined taxonomy/folksonomy consistent."

Those changes represent the growing recognition that effective user experience design is a linchpin for KM. Jerome Nadel, chief experience officer at Human Factors International, emphasizes that user experience design is about deploying systems that address organizational goals as well as satisfying users. "Effective user experience design is persuasive—it ensures that a site or application influences the user toward the desired behavior," he says. "It presents KM tools in context to enable and encourage usage and contribution."

KM provides pragmatic solutions as well as a vision for managing information. "KM is not an ivory tower phenomenon for our clients," Nadel adds. "It is how they work. Companies need to follow rules for compliance, and they need to be efficient. More and more organizations have virtual teams that need to collaborate and connect people."

KM has evolved to the point where collaboration and contribution is as much a priority as information access, according to Nadel. "KM
is no longer just about connecting people to content, it is also about connecting people to people," he says. "Effective design simplifies functions such as search and browse, but also provides efficient contextual access to collaboration tools such as discussion groups and tagging. KM environments are no longer measured only on how well they lead users to relevant knowledge; the new measure is how effectively they promote participation." 

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