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Collaboration: the neglected side of KM

By Lisa Matway and Linda Andrews

Knowledge management has evolved to the point where it is no longer just another corporate buzzword. Many organizations are actually implementing KM strategies and infrastructures that are giving them real benefits in terms of information sharing and streamlining processes. The KM technology market has also evolved, and literally dozens of products and portal solutions deliver the major functions that KM systems require.

But one area of KM is still largely neglected by KM practitioners and technology vendors alike: collaboration. By offering sound collaborative capabilities, a KM system can provide the platform for helping users share documents and project tasks, find outside experts when needed, and know exactly where every project stands--even when the project involves multiple employees or even people outside the organization.

The case for collaboration

Beyond efficiency and process management improvements, the real benefit of collaboration is innovation. Innovation is a natural byproduct of people working together and exchanging ideas, but this level of interaction is easy to lose in this age of telecommuting.

There are plenty of technical capabilities that can be brought to bear on collaboration--discussion databases, workflow participation, real-time scheduling, on-line meetings and presentations, etc. But understanding how these capabilities can translate into innovation will go a long way towards helping you justify the investment in collaboration technology in the first place.

Using collaboration in the real world

Think collaboration sounds great, but can't really have an impact on the way people work in the real world? Guess again. We've seen plenty of examples where effective collaboration is the difference between productivity and stagnation.

For example, let's say you're a "road warrior" and you've missed a return flight to the home office because of a snowstorm, consequently missing a critical all-day business planning meeting. You have little hope of ever fully understanding the concepts presented, let alone gaining the benefit of participating in discussions, debates and decisions. Even if someone takes copious notes, it's not the same as being there.

But what if you had a KM system with advanced collaborative features? You would be able to log into your company's network from your hotel room and have access to all of the documents that were created during the day-long meeting, with the ability to view presentations, schedules, team assignments and so on. You might be able to jump into an online discussion about the major issues that were discussed. If you have access to sophisticated distance learning software, you could even participate in the meeting as it is happening, with the ability to "vote" on issues and decisions.

Even for remote users, collaboration allows them to be involved in projects and events, without losing valuable knowledge that typically flows out of personal interactions--and without having to send numerous e-mails or spend a lot of time trying to hunt down relevant documents.

As another example, consider a chemical engineer with a large pharmaceutical company. As part of a new drug development initiative, the engineer's development team spends three months exploring the reactions that certain chemicals have on each other.

A year later, in another part of the company, a different team is assembled to begin research for a different product--but one that happens to use similar compounds. A collaborative infrastructure would allow the new time to determine if similar research had ever been done in this area, find any relevant documents and find the lead engineer for the original project. The team could even engage the lead engineer in an online discussion to ask questions and unearth other details that might be important.

The result of this collaboration? Leveraging existing expertise within the organization, taking advantage of best practices and elimination of redundant effort, saving the company months of unnecessary and costly research, and accelerating time to market.

Technologies for collaboration

For the most part, collaboration is a neglected part of KM products, as vendors seem to concentrate on features such as searching disparate data stores, automated agents, notification and dynamic content delivery. But there are a few notable exceptions, including Intraspect, Lotus and Open Text.

Intraspect has been designed as a collaborative environment from the beginning, and is highly focused on features for Web-based communication, coordination, knowledge sharing, learning and organizational memory. The system provides an organization's employees with a virtual place to work, with the ability to set up their own spaces to share knowledge and collaborate.

Lotus has built its Notes product line around collaboration from the beginning. Aside from Domino, Lotus also offers components such as QuickPlace for collaboration, SameTime for real-time notification and LearningSpace for distance learning.

Open Text's Livelink solution is built around a project metaphor that mirrors the way people actually work in many organizations--especially consultancies, law firms, accounting firms and other service companies. Users can create new projects, invite participants, set up discussion databases for project participants, share group schedules, share project documents, set up milestones and project flows and even involve users from outside the organization in certain project tasks.

Putting it into practice

The question is, how do you know if collaboration tools will provide your organization with a competitive advantage? And what can you do to ensure that your company makes informed choices about the collaboration technologies to include in your KM solution?

Start by getting a handle on how your company's employees work together and communicate. Do they use e-mail? Phone calls? Face-to-face meetings? Project teams or committees? Then, take a close look at the relative success of those collaborations. Are issues such as geographic separation limiting the effectiveness of those forums? Are the collaborations costly and time-consuming, or natural and efficient?

Once you determine the effectiveness of your current collaborative environment, you'll have a better idea of how to best apply technology to get the most out of those interactions. But when looking at technologies, realize that many of the products that bill themselves as "KM" may offer limited capabilities for collaboration. Be prepared to dig into the product's feature set to understand how it will support your collaboration goals.

Lisa Matway is an analyst and Linda Andrews is a technical writer with Doculabs, 312-433-7793, e-mail info@doculabs.com.

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