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KM in the cloud

This article appears in the issue July/August 2012, [Vol 21, Issue 7]
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The world of KM technology is ever changing and yet, in some ways, never changing. At its heart is the need to manage and extract value from ever growing volumes of both paper and electronic documents. Yet, as the volume of information and the complexity of doing business today become ever more burdensome, the KM technology must keep adjusting to meet the changing needs of buyers and users.

As a result, though much of the underlying technology remains the same year after year, fashionable areas of interest come and go. Some years back, interest focused on the perceived value of enterprise search technology; in other years, compliance and records management have been at the fore. Something is always in vogue, and just like in the world of fashion, the latest trend can go out of fashion very quickly.

So what is in fashion this year? Well, the biggest area of interest must be cloud. In 2012, every vendor of KM-related technology has a cloud offering and uses the term in as many marketing messages as possible. The term cloud in this context is a nebulous one that can be hard to grasp. Theoretically at least, cloud refers to the use of a networked and virtualized server environment, providing almost unlimited storage and processing power, on demand.

In practice, though, cloud is the term used by any provider of "off premise" computing. Providers that would have described their offerings as SaaS or hosted a couple of years ago, now re-label their services as cloud. It's important for a buyer to know just what a seller means when using the term cloud, and there should be no embarrassment in asking detailed and nitpicking questions to determine the truth. There may be nothing but hot air in their claims.

Marketing message

Despite that confused message, or perhaps because of it, cloud KM offerings are hitting the market at a rapid pace. We have not seen so many new market entrants since the heady days of the dot.com era. Startups such as Box, Dropbox, Huddle, Oxygen, SkyDox and Citrix ShareFile have all grown significantly and made serious inroads into large organizations in the past year. There are a number of reasons for their current popularity. They are perceived as low cost, and most are free to begin using. You don't need an IT administrator to help, and anyone can install and immediately use the service. Last, but not least, they are really easy to use.

Cloud KM services that specifically target larger organizations really push the ease of installation and use angle, and often explicitly state that they are easier and cheaper to use than Microsoft SharePoint. That is a dubious claim, however, and buyers should investigate thoroughly before accepting it. Those considering or using Microsoft SharePoint as a KM system represent the cloud providers target buyers.

KM cloud vendors are going to be a notable part of KM's future, but their newness to the market also reflects their immaturity. Some are weak in terms of security functionality. Few have really scaled their offerings to thousands of users. Administration and integration tools are often inadequate to meet typical enterprise needs. They are costly when used in large environments, and the problems of managing viral growth (witnessed with SharePoint) go unaddressed. Cloud-based KM or cloud-based file sharing, to be more accurate, is going to be with us for a long time, but it also has a long way to go before it really delivers all it currently promises.

Information accessibility

I'm not sure if what the cloud vendors think they are selling is what people are actually buying. Unlimited storage and low costs sound good, but the truth is that in corporate situations, you are not spending your own money. Most people have more than enough storage. From my discussions with buyers of these services, the real appeal lies in information accessibility. If there is an area that traditional KM vendors poorly deliver on, it is that. Most traditional KM vendors imagine that users are tied to a desk and access all information via a closed corporate network or intranet.

Well, that is true enough for some users, but those who access various information sources and actually involve themselves in work collaboration are more often mobile these days. They access information from a variety of different devices and locations. It is something that cloud-based KM vendors do well; as long as users have Internet connection, they can access your files. I have trialed a few of those systems, and although far from perfect, the fact that I can access important business and legal files securely on my iPhone, iPad or laptop pretty much anywhere has been a boon to me, as it has been to many others.

I think cloud will have its biggest impact on KM in unshackling knowledge workers from their desktop, enabling anywhere, anytime access to information. In making that significant breakthrough, some collateral damage will be left in its wake. Truly mobile computing changes a lot of things, but the biggest single change is that everything has to work on mobile devices. You have to build technology solutions that still operate at the lowest common denominator. Unlike laptops and desktops, most mobile devices are not browser-centric in nature. They are application-centric in nature, which represents a huge shift for the average worker.

Low adoption rate

Take for example the cloud-based KM file sharing providers I mentioned previously. Each of them has an iPhone/iPad/Android application available for immediate download. Once the application is downloaded, I click one button to get to my information stores. If I were working in a traditional corporate desktop/laptop environment, I would fire up a Web browser to find information, most likely connecting to the corporate intranet. The things that people actually use intranets for-such as searching corporate directories and disseminating corporate information-become individual applications or RSS feeds in mobile computing environments.

I have never been terribly convinced about the idea of a corporate portal-based intranet, despite having advised many firms on the design and construction of such grand designs. In reality, they usually have a fairly low adoption rate, and what services are accessed on the intranet are those that users have no choice but to use: filling in timesheets, applying for holiday/vacation leave, checking the staff canteen menu for the day, etc. All the rich content that HR, legal and corporate communications departments place on the intranet usually just collects dust. And the idealized, highly productive knowledge worker, so beloved by KM experts, seldom appears in public. In fact, people are not in the main terribly analytical or even inquisitive in the workplace.

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