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KM ascendant at Lotusphere

Forget groupware. The new mantra at Lotus is knowledge management, at least judging from the breathless repositioning of Domino as an enterprise KM platform at Lotusphere. Michael Zisman, executive VP of strategy at Lotus and recently designated IBM's worldwide executive in charge of KM, outlined the new vision in a press conference, positioning KM as the engine that would win the hearts and minds of the Global 2000 for Lotus. And kick Microsoft's butt in the process.

Lotus' definition of KM embraces Five Pillars. Three of the pillars, says Lotus, are relatively mature. They are collaboration (messaging and groupware), business intelligence (OLAP and data mining) and knowledge transfer (distance learning tools). The newer ones are content management (document management and categorization) and expertise (locators and profile directories). Naturally, the entire plethora of Lotus products--as well as a host of IBM software--is tacked neatly onto one or another of the pillars. Voila! Domino is knowledge management!

Strangely, search technology didn't make the cut, despite the fact that it's what most people first think of when KM comes to mind. Perhaps it's because it's the piece of the KM technology puzzle that still doesn't work very well.

In fact, rather than focus on better determining which bits of retrieved content are relevant to the user's knowledge quest, Lotus is now pushing "location of expertise" as the key role of KM software. That's certainly easier than locating relevant documents automatically, because the topic vocabulary of expertise and experience, within a single company at least, is more constrained.

To illustrate Domino as a KM platform, Lotus demonstrated a nifty business intelligence app. It would periodically search Web data sources to detect new information about selected competitors and generate specific recommendations for action. In spite of all the Domino software, its key element seemed to be the "knowledge process owner," a person whose role is to sift through all the stuff returned and grade the relevance of each piece. However, says Lotus, that discipline and methodology--i.e. extra work--is nothing to apologize for. In fact, it's what KM is all about.

When Zisman really got going, it became evident that the Lotus KM vision really is not about technology, but about culture change, restructured processes and new methodologies for doing business. Even Lotus and IBM's new Institute for Knowledge Management, a consortium for applied research, seems to care less about developing search tools that actually work than conducting investigations into topics like "social capital" and intellectual property issues when two companies merge. Whew!

In response to one skeptic, Zisman admitted KM is kind of a grab bag from a software standpoint. But, he continued, so was ERP 10 years ago before it consolidated into integrated suites. The same market trajectory, he suggested, would not be a bad future for KM. In my mind, however, flashed another scenario, that of workflow and BPR. Back then workflow vendors tried to cover up for the fact that their technology tools weren't very good by wrapping them in the mantle of business process re-engineering. That too was all about discipline, culture change and methodology, because applying all that analysis and consulting often made things better whether the workflow software worked or not.

Admittedly, implementing KM today does require breaking down old corporate culture, imposing structure on the business process, and probably buying a hefty dose of professional services from an integrator. But the vision for a company like Lotus should be to provide more intelligence and automation in the software itself, not to generate billable hours for an army of Big 6 consultants. To achieve the ERP market trajectory, they'll have to.

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