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A closer look at KM’s role in collaboration

Collaborative knowledge is more than a data repository, it’s a dynamic communications hub

Collaborative technologies such as instant messaging and video conferencing are being integrated into KM systems to provide seamless access to all types of information necessary for companies, and even departments within a company, to work together. When companies start using knowledge management as a catalyst for collaborative efforts--ranging from sharing the plans for a new product or an invoice that needs sorting out--the potential benefits are huge.

For example, a buyer at a retail firm might can get an e-mail alert that a vendor has a concern about a particular purchase order. Together, the retailer and the vendor can view the document simultaneously--online, in real time--to work out the necessary changes. Once the purchase order has been adjusted, both parties can notify the appropriate people within their companies to view the updated purchase order and make the necessary scheduling changes. That notification can happen via e-mail, pager, cell phone or instant messaging, and in many cases the alerts can be triggered automatically. The KM system acts as both a communication hub and data repository.

If a further discussion between the retailer and the supplier is necessary, a video conference might be arranged. That video could be stored on a secure Web site to be referred to later if necessary. Essentially, the parties involved in a project can set up a "virtual office" on the Web that provides access to all relevant information that is shared on an ongoing basis.

"Knowledge management needs to be built around transactions," says Steven Maegdlin, VP of marketing for Optika. "But knowledge management can just focus on the transactions that go right. One in nine invoices, for example, has an issue. Yet, 40% of the overall expenses associated with processing transactions are spent on fixing the few transactions that went wrong. Collaboration features of a knowledge management system help companies work together to resolve issues more quickly.”

He gives the example of two companies working together to resolve a disputed invoice. One person is viewing the invoice and sees there is a problem. "They paid for 100 widgets, but they only got 50 according to the delivery documentation," he says. The person reviewing the documents can hit an "invite" button to prompt a colleague at the vendor company to go online and view the documentation to solve the problem. "We've been working to integrate some of these collaborative tools into a knowledge management solution," Maegdlin says. Chat, e-mail and co-browsing in which one party takes control of the other person's browser--perhaps to bring up an image of a disputed purchase order or review a shipping document--are turning KM into a collaborative workhorse.

"These collaborative tools have been around for years,” Maegdlin explains, “but they've never been integrated as part of the knowledge management package. However, they are essential to making knowledge management a true business tool for the future." The tools are essential for turning knowledge management into a platform for knowledge sharing. "It is easy to keep putting things into an ever-growing knowledgebase," says Jim Pflaging, president and CEO of Intraspect. "The key, however, is being able to share that information with your business partners within the company as well as outside the company."

To foster knowledge sharing, Intraspect allows users to "subscribe" to relevant topics and objects so they are alerted when a piece of vital information has been added to the knowledge database.

"Customers, partners and suppliers not only have access to the enterprise knowledgebase, the place where the most important jewels of the company sit, but they have a way to sort through the knowledge for the specific data they need to do their jobs," Pflaging says.

Allowing vendors access to select information about their accounts has been a big benefit at Greenlee Textron in Rockford, IL.

"We started looking at what we could be doing to strengthen our relationships with our business partners," says Mary Lewis, e-business director for Greenlee, which is using Optika's KM system for collaboration.

"We've got all these reps taking calls from suppliers and other business partners wanting copies of shipping documents and invoices. We felt if we could put some of that off to self-service, allowing people with routine queries to come in and get the information they need quickly, we could be more responsive on more complex inquiries," she says. While deflecting some of the more routine inquiries, the KM system can also enhance Greenlee's ability to resolve more complex situations.

Explains Lewis, "We can have our business partners go in and look at the same info we're looking at using a Web-based interactive chat. We can look at the same documentation at the same time. We can point to line number two, where we're having a problem. We can work it out a lot faster than we would using mail, fax or even e-mail." While Greenlee hasn't fully rolled out the interactive chat feature yet, Lewis says they plan to over the next few months.

Sharing forecast changes and more

Sales forecasts can be one of the most critical applications for collaborative-based knowledge management systems.

"People at the product design and manufacturing level are leveraging the technology," says Kian Saneii, senior VP of marketing and business development for IPNet Solutions. For example, a home improvement center forecasts sales for a certain brand of drill. That projection changes by a few percentage points before the order is actually placed. If the drill maker doesn't share the revised forecast with its component suppliers, projections are way off.

"When the forecasts are off, it just magnifies problems down the line, and the component manufacturers at the end of the line don't even know what's happening," Saneii says. With a collaborative KM system, when the home center retailer adjusts its sales forecast, notification can go down the line and all affected parties can view the new forecast.

Companies are also integrating KM with their enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, which are corporatewide systems used for tracking things such as inventory, financial data and even human resource information.

For example, Owens Corning, a global manufacturer of advanced glass and building material systems, is integrating a knowledge management system with its ERP system, as well as corporate databases, e-mail and calendaring. They're using a KM system from InfoImage.

Collaborative KM also has the potential for greater sharing of information during the design of a new product, Saneii says. A cell phone maker, for example, can have dozens or even hundreds of component suppliers. "You work very closely with the top 10 maybe. Get them involved in the new phone design. Share documents and drawings and specifications to be sure they'll be able to deliver. This can reduce time to market, and you can hopefully deal with quality issues upfront,” he explains.

Collaborative solutions take KM beyond the tracking of standard transactions such as invoices and purchase orders, notes Avanish Sahai, VP and general manager for Impresse. In its initial launch in January, Impresse is focusing on managing marketing projects with its Web-based collaborative system.

"Marketing is inherently a collaborative effort. You work with a lot of groups within the company as well as those outside the company, such as printers and other vendors," he says.

The sharing of information goes beyond the invoice and purchase order. "An example is you are doing a photography shoot which will be incorporated into a new brochure, Web page and direct mail piece for your company,” Sahai says. “If that is delayed, things are delayed down the road, so you need to share that information."

Each company handles marketing projects differently, and even each marketing project within the same company can take different paths, making a collaborative and flexible KM system crucial. "Every company does things differently. How we interact with our agencies, suppliers and internally when working on a marketing project is unique," Sahai says.

The benefit of a Web-based collaborative KM system is that it does not require any specialized software to enable business partners to view documents and other files online, according to many vendors and users. "You can access information from your laptop while you're at a hotel or an airport lounge. These systems are now accessible through a standard Internet browser," says Marc Wallace, president and CEO of SwapDrive, which provides Web-based operating software for data storage.

According to the CEO, the system is sparking particular interest among engineers who often have to route large CAD files. "The alternative was to print them out and ship them overnight, because many times engineers work with a client on a design, and the client does not have access to CAD software, which can be very expensive,” Wallace explains. “This is a faster and less painful alternative because it allows the CAD files to be viewed using a browser.”

Paul Carroll, knowledge manager at Proxicom, a consulting firm based in Reston, VA, says a collaborative KM system is more than just a repository for information. Proxicom is using Intraspect's collaborative technology.

"A knowledge management system is so dependent on people using it. If it’s just a repository where things sit, it’s not what I would call collaboration," Wallace says. "This system brings people in the company together interactively to fulfill the needs of clients. It is a living dynamic place where people breathe and play. People post things about new companies they've come in contact with. The company's sailing club even uses it to communicate with one another."

Kim Ann Zimmermann is a free-lance writer, e-mail kimzimmermann@home.com.

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