The face of knowledge management: a status report

Knowledge management starts from a simple premise: The critical resource that determines competitive advantage in today's economy is knowledge. Consequently, the same kinds of tools and strategies that companies once devoted to optimizing the use of natural resources, capital and labor in the old industrial economy now must be applied to maximizing the productivity of their knowledge assets. Knowledge management refers to the collection of management practices and associated enabling technologies.

KM then and nowWhen it began in the early 1990s, knowledge management was squarely focused on increasing organizational effectiveness by improving the diffusion of "tacit" institutional knowledge, that is, inside the heads of employees. Particularly in large companies, project teams within the enterprise had been continually "reinventing the wheel," oblivious to the past successes or failures of other groups within the same company confronted with nearly identical problems. No tools existed for collecting and sharing institutional knowledge so that best practices discovered in one part of the organization could be easily leveraged across the company to create maximum competitive advantage, nor were corporate organizational structures and culture ready to try.

Improving organizational effectiveness still remains the primary goal of most KM efforts, but two major transformations brought about by the Internet have enlarged today's KM playing field to include knowledge outside the company walls. The first is extension of the business process to include customer participation. Customer self-service is turning once-stovepiped back-office operations into integrated e-businesses. Through the Internet, companies now can market, sell and service their offerings directly to customers, all the while collecting information about each one that in the aggregate creates a huge new knowledge asset. The second is a dramatic change in corporate culture, which now places a premium value on speed, flexibility and responsiveness as business is increasingly conducted "at the speed of thought." Today's project teams are by necessity ad hoc and virtual, geographically dispersed and always on the move. The new generation of KM technology keeps them constantly connected and informed through a multitude of channels and devices.

Here's a quick look at some recent trends in the technology for knowledge management. Information portals and personal KMAny knowledge-sharing infrastructure begins with an information portal, a virtual place on the network where users "live" online. Think of this as a default window on the desktop that aggregates all the information each user needs to get work done each day--data and documents, e-mail, Web links and queries, dynamic feeds from the network, and shared calendars and task lists. In a Web-centric environment this looks like a common home page; in other desktop environments it might look like an extension of the Outlook personal information manager into a "digital dashboard." Either way, the personal information portal has become the signature technology feature of today's KM toolkit. Each user has the freedom to customize the specific information presented on his or her personal page on the portal, as well as to access information at the team, department or corporate level. By integrating search and access to disparate knowledge sources, while providing a common interface across the organization that lets users individually tailor the presentation to their personal needs, portals encourage users both to share knowledge and stay informed.

Behind their deceptively simple user interface, portals require powerful technology. Each data and document source supported--most of which pre-exist the portal--typically has its own security, access control, search and reporting capabilities. The portal must provide a simple, unified viewport to all these sources, while respecting the security and access control rules of each, allowing each user to see only information for which they are authorized.

Project teams and process managementPortals today go beyond mere viewports to information, but have become a focal point for collaborative business processes. They create a shared team workspace ideal for developing new products more quickly, solving customer problems more effectively, acquiring and servicing customers through online collaboration or resolving issues anywhere in the supply chain. Just as personal portal users must be able to tailor their individual workspaces without administrator assistance, it must be possible for ad hoc project teams to be set up without assistance, including access permissions for team members to view or contribute data and documents, calendars and tasks.

Business process management is another key function of project team portals, but in contrast to the old structured serial workflow of the back office, the process management functionality is more parallel and freeform--something akin to project management software enhanced with routing, approvals, task lists and reminders. Another difference is that users are not necessarily tied to their desktops, but want to be able to receive notifications from the process management system--and respond to them--from a variety of portable devices, including wireless PDAs, cell phones and pagers.

Collaborative team workspaces are increasingly being used to bring customers inside the business process--sometimes before the deal is even completed. The team space may have public areas accessible to customers, partners or prospects, along with private areas accessible only to core team members. Again, tight security and access control combined with administrator-free setup and look-and-feel configuration is the key to success.

Real-time collaboration and knowledge transferAs project teams become more virtual and mobile, online team workspaces are evolving to become platforms for real-time collaboration. Technology innovations such as instant messaging, shared whiteboards and onscreen presentations, integrating voice and data, are starting to appear within the KM collaboration platform. Activities that once required face-to-face meetings now can be accomplished over the network. Some KM systems can even monitor who is currently logged onto the network and accessible through real-time interaction.

Another aspect of KM using these emerging real-time innovations is knowledge transfer, particularly in the realm of training or so-called distance learning. New procedures, best practices, or discovered solutions can be quickly and effectively communicated throughout the organization via online presentations that allow real-time, two-way interaction with participants.

Knowledge capture and discoveryAs every Internet user knows, simply providing keyword searching of a vast sea of information is not the same as effectively sharing knowledge. Finding relevant information quickly and easily requires more advanced technology, much of which is finding its way into KM software. One example is federated searching across disparate information types and physical repositories--Web pages, Word documents, e-mail messages, calendars and user directories--using common query terms. Another is the ability to sort or filter vast query hit lists to find the desired information, such as the ranking documents by frequency of access, or including only documents the user himself has accessed in the past month. XML technology is emerging as a universal tagging framework for identifying information structure--author, title, customer name or other business data elements—that will dramatically make information easier to find, and quickly make today's keyword searching a quaint anachronism.

Typically, the knowledge sought resides in documents created by others in the user's own organization, but any KM effort that

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