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Netting knowledge via the corporate intranet

One of the biggest challenges that any company faces is harnessing the knowledge that is in the brain, computer files and filing cabinets of each individual.

There could be a person down the hall whom you've never met, who is the expert on a particular issue that you are trying to tackle. Why start from scratch when that person has already built a base of knowledge that you could use?But how do you know that expertise is available right under your nose? You might run into that person in the lunch room or at the water cooler, but companies are beginning to understand that they should not leave knowledge sharing to chance.

Building a usable knowledge database of the human assets of an organization--details about the skills and training of each person in the company and the projects to which they have contributed--is one way that forward-thinking companies are using Web technology.

Harnessing the knowledge of the people within the organization is a clear motivation behind the latest generation of intranet- and Internet-based technology. The notion that intranets are just for the tech support department is being left by the wayside. Marketing departments, sales teams and other "non-techies" in the organization are beginning to make use of technology to share knowledge, often in real time through chat capabilities throughout the organization.

Poor participation"IT’s dominance in intranet development, and relatively low participation levels from some key functional groups, may be contributing to users' low preference for using intranets to find information." says Lisa Nash, an information analyst covering deployment best practices for the research firm Outsell. "Users don't always recognize the difference between technology and content, but from the value perspective, it's imperative that intranets are built from a content-centric point of view, regardless of who leads the team."

Participation on intranet teams is lowest among some functional groups of users who are key information consumers, according to Outsell's study. Engineering, sales, finance, manufacturing and purchasing each participate on the intranet team in less than 10% of instances, and information professionals report that participation by those groups is on the decline.

A variety of typical user representatives should be included on intranet planning teams, according to Nash, who adds, "Intranets are certainly a welcomed technological advancement, but until corporations begin to manage them as dynamic collections of content rather than static technological infrastructure, users will look elsewhere for their information."

Staff skillsThe difficulty that companies have had in developing intranets is the need for someone to take the lead in managing the information. That is especially true when it comes to developing data about the skills and areas of expertise of specific staffers.

"Finding the right person to interact with is a key challenge in any company," says Brian Adler, senior marketing manager of Collaborative Commerce for Lotus Development. Lotus has developed technology to automate that process. The system, which includes Lotus Discovery Server and K-station, derives information about the skills of staffers based on the projects they have been involved in and the documents they have read, created and passed along to colleagues, among other indicators.

“Users don’t need to fill out a skill summary, detailing their areas of expertise, which can often be a hindrance,” says Glen Kelley, senior manager for knowledge management strategy at Lotus. “The system derives information about who is the best person or team for a particular task based on what documents have been authored, read and passed around.”.The Lotus Discovery Server enables users to search for information and subject matter experts from multiple locations using a Web browser, and it identifies relationships among documents, people and topics.

“The indexing and cataloging is done automatically, making it easy to reuse. One of the biggest hindrances to developing a Web-based knowledge database is having to manually catalog each piece of information into the database in order for it to be reused,” Kelley says.

The Lotus K-station provides a personalized single point of access for retrieving critical information and collaborating with others both inside and outside the organization. Users can see when colleagues are available online and initiate instant messages.

Whatever whereverLaw firm Shearman & Sterling is piloting Web-based technologies to manage the intellectual capital of its more than 1,000 attorneys. The firm began capturing, cataloging and indexing its rapidly accumulating pool of information several years ago. The attorneys--working with clients all over the world--need access to the firm's knowledge resources. With that access, they can leverage prior decisions and insights. Shearman & Sterling is currently piloting the Lotus Knowledge Discovery System.

“To compete effectively, we need to meet our clients' needs with increasing speed and efficiency,” says Eugene Stein, director of Information and Professional Systems for the law firm. “We strive to use knowledge management to enable our attorneys--whether in a hotel room in Beijing or at one of our offices around the world--to be just a few clicks away from all of the firm's resources, whenever they need them.”Shearman & Sterling built its team workspaces using Lotus' QuickPlace, enabling team members to collaborate and receive updates on particular matters--including schedules, depositions, witness lists and links to related cases.

“Every lawyer in the world has a file drawer full of 'stuff' that he or she thinks is important and will refer to," notes Stein. "Our challenge is how to take that stuff and organize it for individual lawyers, while enabling them to share these resources with every other lawyer.”

Sametime, which enables real-time chats, is also embedded in each workspace. An attorney can log on from anywhere to see if other staff attorneys with relevant expertise are online, and then conduct instant exchanges to receive immediate assistance.

Stein is also testing Discovery Server and its ability to automatically create taxonomies to catalog and index documents--from spreadsheets to e-mail communication and even Web content.

The plan is for Discovery Server to push information to the appropriate users and workspaces, and for K-station to present it. For instance, the announcement of a new CEO at a client company would be sent to all staff members to whom that information might be relevant.

Community buildingBacked by Freeserve and Barclays, Clearlybusiness.com, a small business advice and services Web site in the United Kingdom, is trying to match users with business advisors, industry experts and their peers.

The company utilizes Orbital’s Organik software to automatically create and dynamically update user profiles, interests and expertise while building a knowledge database that records previously asked questions and answers for future use by customers. Although Clearlybusiness.com is providing that information to an Internet population, the system can be used to develop communities and databases of expertise for corporate portals as well.

“The value of the software lies in its ability to link people together with questions and answers, building a real community and a library of experience and knowledge which our customers can access,” says Stephen Shelley, managing director of Clearlybusiness.com.

Kim Ann Zimmermann is a free-lance writer, 609-448-7509, e-mail kimzim2764@yahoo.co

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