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Consulting firms play a key role in context of KM

SAIC project team members are "technology agnostic " when they first sit down with clients, initially focusing on the business problem to be solved. Ideally, they will be able to use the client's existing IT resources, and then add what is needed. "If the client knows they want a BPM solution, we can give suggestions and recommendations," says Wallace, "but we don't lead with that. The solution comes first." In addition, the underlying technology should be as unobtrusive as possible. The more it fits in with the rhythm of the business, the more likely it is to endure.

Assisting clients in using existing resources more effectively, both information and technology, should be a central component of a consulting firm's plan. In many cases, no new technology is needed. One of CSC's clients, an oil company, faced a series of decisions relating to investments in business development options. Each option--which might include expanding a refinery, constructing a supertanker, or expanding offshore production through new drilling--was developed and then evaluated. The client was using a process that included gathering information and performing a series of progressively more rigorous evaluations of risk and financial return, using a set of models.

The approach being used by the client had several limitations, however. "Quantification of the pros and cons of each choice was not consistent," says Records, "so comparing the options was difficult." Moreover, each year when a project was reconsidered, the evaluation process had to start again because conclusions were not documented. Finally, in many cases, sources for the information needed for a decision were not located within the time available, so a data-driven decision could not be made, and that option was shelved.

The oil company initially needed to discover and document the rather informal process it was following in making these evaluations. With the assistance of CSC, a more formal process was defined that allowed experts throughout the global company to better integrate their efforts. In addition, the company found that only about 30% of the information it needed was in an existing repository. All the rest was either external to the firm, or in unstructured sources that had not been captured. Although statistical engines had been developed for their evaluation models, in many cases they did not have reliable data needed to populate the models.

CSC and the client then created a map that combined process and knowledge, and identified sources of data for the models, highlighting each decision point. "We identified what information was going to be needed for the decision," Records continues, "what was already available, and what was missing." This analysis allowed the team to find sources for the data in advance of the time when it would be needed.

The result was a solution that brought in enough data to support a decision, and the ability to compare the different investment options with each other. Individuals working on each of the other investment options were brought into contact with each other so they could better compare the investment options. In addition, the conclusions for each year could be documented and stored, so that future evaluations could build on them rather than starting anew. No new technology was needed, just a more effective way of locating and incorporating the data needed to support an existing method of analysis, and a process for helping members of a global team to work more effectively together.

In other cases, a mandate for new technology follows from business requirements. "In the case of CRM, for example," says Singer, "the client typically wants the to become more customer-centric." Symptoms typically reported to a Booz Allen consulting team might be that the company is getting a lot of complaints, or that it is losing customers. Customer service reps (CSRs) may be taking multiple calls from a customer before a question is resolved. "Sometimes the client has done an analysis and knows what the issues are," says Singer, "but they need a more specific, targeted plan of action."

Technology comes in because CSRs cannot effectively answer inquiries if other data systems are not integrated with their customer records. For example, product descriptions or billing records might need to be available for a response on the first call. A consulting firm would conduct an audit of the organization's information sources and see which ones need to be made accessible, and make recommendations as to how to do it. "Many organizations are not familiar enough with software products to know what their options are," adds Singer. Consulting firms should provide an objective assessment of these options to help clients find the best match.

An outside perspective can be helpful to a business that is, of necessity, absorbed in its day-to-day activities. "Sometimes companies get tangled up in the technology," continues Singer, "especially when knowledge management is being driven by a change in culture or business process." A CRM project, for example, is generally large-scale, so getting the infrastructure in place can take a long time, and some firms give up before the project is completed. In contrast, BPM projects are more limited and tactically focused. They can be scaled down more easily to take on just a slice of an overall activity at first. In the long run, Singer sees a solutions stack coming together that will include portal, enterprise content management, CRM, and other functions, all sandwiched into a single security environment. When the mission changes, the process layer should be able to change without a major system overhaul.

Some companies are able to successfully tackle the design, development, and deployment of a knowledge management system on their own. However, when a company needs a new look at an old problem, or wants the experience of an advisor who may have solved that problem before, hiring a consulting firm may be the way to go.

Judith Lamont is a research analyst with Zentek Corp., e-mail jlamont@sprintmail.com.

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