Starting small: first steps toward KM orchestration

A musical trio is easily organized, but creating an orchestra requires an order of magnitude more in terms of time, resources and planning. The early, pleasing experiences of the smaller musical group, however, serve its organizer and members well when it's time to think much bigger. So it is with today's KM professional and the Internet.

It is truly amazing how the cost of information has plummeted over the past few years. Much of what cost hundreds or thousands of dollars per month in subscription fees now is available free at a combination of large Web portals. Also, common software tools have matured, becoming more and more sophisticated. Put those together in concert with a practical knowledge management strategy and you have an impressive system for virtually no investment other than your valuable time creating and fine-tuning it. After enough "gee-whiz" situations clearly demonstrating its value, top management will likely request more and be willing to pay for it.

Rolling out a comprehensive, corporatewide knowledge management solution is much like creating a world-class orchestra. But expensive solutions require justification--the best of which is a good catalog of success stories demonstrating the wisdom of a larger investment. This article examines the sometimes overlooked and often underused Internet-centric tools applicable to knowledge management. Effective use of these high-performance tools must be orchestrated with a comprehensive strategy to support the organization's goals. There are three components to this approach:

  • a strategy to support KM goals,;

  • sources of external and internal information, preferably in electronic format,;

  • software that can maximize the value of the sources of information to create knowledge.;

    Proactive strategy My book, "Internet Business Intelligence: How to Build a Big Company System on a Small Company Budget" (Information Today, 2000), presents the classic intelligence cycle in a corporate framework. That cycle includes planning, collection, analysis and dissemination. My PROACtive Process adapts that framework to the corporate world with these steps: Planning, rapid Retrieval, Organization, Analysis with appropriate techniques, and Communication.

    Planning demands a formalized approach to setting goals. The KM pro in the large organization will likely be working in a functional position supporting such activities as marketing, finance, operations and administration. Whatever the subject requirement, the planning needs to involve developing a specific list of topics to be covered by a system. In the cases presented in my book, the system is an Internet-centric one that is referred to as the Internet Business Intelligence System.

    With the goals established, rapid retrieval of information is required to fulfill the goals. That can encompass ad hoc queries, systematic monitoring and creating easily searched repositories. High-performance use of Internet search engines and archiving of results is a strong contender for fulfilling some of the requirements. Organization must be tightly integrated with retrieval.

    Analysis must fit the business problem. Simple analyses often can be accomplished with table sorts in the word processor or basic graphing and statistical analysis in a spreadsheet. Internet-derived data sometimes is available as a download in spreadsheet or database format. It usually can be transformed from ASCII text to a comma-separated value file using search and replace techniques in the word processor.

    Communication is central to KM. Data is not information until it is processed. Information is not intelligence until it is efficiently communicated. Integrating Internet-friendly electronic formats greatly facilitates communication. As broadband is deployed, users can take advantage of a variety of conferencing capabilities including document collaboration, audio discussion and one-way or two-way video. Complementing e-mail attachments, such tools as Microsoft NetMeeting, CU-SeeMe, Visitalk.com and audio conferencing facilitate the creation and dissemination of knowledge.

    Sources of information Rapid retrieval and search engines go hand in hand. Everyone has used them but to what extent? For example, a search can yield 7 million hits, or seven that are right on target. Rapid retrieval of precisely what you need is accomplished by using each search engine's advanced search syntax. But there's more. Today's major search portals go much further in providing business intelligence for knowledge management.

    For example, an AltaVista Business Search (under More Searches on the home page) can yield a lot more company data in an easier-to-use format. Searching by company name yields a Company Factsheet. It contains separate functions: Search the Web for the company, Search for news about the company, Search for the company's products, List the company's registered Web sites. There's a "Click here for a list of Internet Keywords related to the company" that can present the company's competitors.

    Another example of beyond searching capabilities is BellSouth's RealPages. The user can perform several unique research functions. Reverse search of a telephone number is fairly common, but RealPages provides a reverse search for area codes yielding a list of the towns and cities within the code. Those can be copied and pasted into a document for regional analysis if needed. Check Home Values is another specialized function that provides value and sale date by street address. For those personally or professionally concerned about sales activity, that function also provides an e-mail alert service.

    Some of the best sources of external information available at no charge are search engine portals that offer news clipping capability. Creating a My Yahoo Yahoo custom Web page permits the establishment of a News Clipper file that will scan a variety of mainstream news sources and save articles that meet your keyword criteria. Others include Crayon, Excite, Individual, InfoBeat, ITN Desktop News, Los Amgeles Times), Moreover and Scoop

    Putting together three or four of those custom Web pages with news clipping capabilities allows you to monitor more than a thousand unique sources of information, filtering only what is of interest to you. Tracking functions, such as My Yahoo's Web Site Tracker, cover changes to or addition of Web sites in a similar way. Also available are industry-specific portals that provide the same capability covering vertical markets. For example, KMWorld Magazine's online newsletter NewsLinks provides information industry-specific news items delivered via e-mail.

    Another general category of external information is that derived from Internet discussions. There are probably more than 200,000 public discussions conducted via Internet. Those discussions cover an enormously wide range of subjects and take place in three formats: usenet newsgroups (public bulletin boards), subscription mail lists (open to anyone or closed to all but selected participants), and live conferences (text-only exchanges or "chats" as well as live audio and video conferences) that are sometimes abstracted and archived.

    Using specialized features of search engines to find the right discussions and subscribing or securing appropriate information provides another stream of relevant information. However, those discussion systems can be set up to permit ongoing dialog among a small group of people. The best free systems offer a number of features that facilitate the creation and management of knowledge.

    For example, eGroup's is a free e-mail group service that allows you to easily create and join e-mail groups. Non-public groups allow you to send e-mail messages to a group of people using one e-mail address. Users can receive all individual messages or a daily digest that consolidates all e-mails into one full-text message and a message archive stores all the messages your group has ever sent so subscribers can browse past information. Each group receives 20 megabytes of private storage space for saving files and any other group document. Other features include calendar, a private chat room, polls and moderator functions.

    Live conferences on the Internet are still in their infancy. As more bandwidth becomes available to more people at lower cost, higher-quality video teleconferencing will become commonplace. Several "voice chat" portals are available now to complement the long-standing availability of text-chat.

    For the most part, those conferencing services are useful only for special occasions that demand PC-based real-time conferencing. Microsoft's NetMeeting software permits conference participants to communicate in various modes and collaborate on documents.

    Usenet newsgroups, mail lists and conferences yield individual messages that can be saved and shared with others if needed. Similarly, internal information can be merged into the database. If you choose to save selected items on your own computer, you can download them or e-mail them to yourself and store them in folders within your e-mail system.

    Internet-centric software Netscape Navigator's Messenger module provides two key functions for managing the inward flow of information. You can create and maintain message filters so that Messenger automatically matches criteria you set and files inbound messages into predetermined folders when they arrive. Once filed, you can search through messages in any mail folder or newsgroup message collection on your computer using various search criteria including keywords. Once messages are found, you can open, refile or delete them. Internet Explorer from Microsoft uses Outlook to handle messages and has similar features.

    Internet Explorer includes a bookmark function but its features go beyond standard and include saving Web pages. When you make a Web page available offline using Favorites, you can read its content when your computer is not connected to the Internet. For example, you can view Web pages on your laptop computer when you don't have a network or Internet connection. You can specify how much content you want and choose how often you want to automatically update that content on your computer. You can save the Web page text or save all of the images and text needed to display that page as it appears on the Web.

    Another Internet-centric tool example (although not free) is Adobe Acrobat. Well known and highly respected in KM circles, that work-horse software can be used to download Web pages. You can open Web pages in a new PDF document or append them to an existing document. You provide the URL by using a command in Acrobat, and Acrobat downloads the page from the top level of that URL, breaking it into units of multiple PDF pages if necessary. Acrobat can also download pages from the entire site or from a specified number of levels below the top level.

    The Acrobat Search command allows you to perform full-text searches of PDF document collections that have been indexed using Acrobat Catalog, whereas the Acrobat Find command allows you to search only a single document. The Find command is further limited by having to look at every word on every page. Therefore, searches of full-text indexes created using Catalog are faster and more convenient than using the Find command. The Search command also provides powerful tools for limiting and expanding a search.

    Just like the music director who coordinates various instruments, using free or low-cost Internet-centric tools in concert with a plan creates a powerful performance--an Internet Business Intelligence System. That system is an excellent point of departure for seeking organizational funding for much larger, more capable systems. It also is a fine platform for testing various sources of information and methods of handling them. It is all some will need to meet their KM challenges. For others, it provides valuable lessons and a solid justification for increased spending.

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