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Step up to the knowledge economy

In the past decade, a new and unprecedented challenge for companies of all sizes has arisen, one that may very well mean life or death for a particular organization. That challenge is finding a way to successfully capture and communicate the knowledge within it. With the dramatic shift from an industrial to a knowledge economy during the last 25 years, a company's success is predicated on being able to tap into its biggest asset--the knowledge of its employees.

This change makes it critical for companies to implement various forms of technology in an attempt to capture knowledge, so it is not lost. Most such deployments, however, fail to support the knowledge worker and the knowledge-based organization to make the organization's knowledge available where and when it is needed.

It is no small task. Most knowledge workers, those who work with knowledge sharing and collaboration technology every day, have yet to embrace its full potential and unlimited possibilities. Far too often companies do not understand how the existing software or platforms are used--a problem that stems from and leads to further ignorance.

Three high-level tenets portend the future of the workplace:

  • the one environment rule (OER), which describes the benefits of conflating all applications into a single interface;
  • friction-free knowledge sharing, which eliminates unnecessary steps in order to increase knowledge worker productivity; and 
  • embedded community, which deeply integrates many of the tools within the work environment.

The environment that fully satisfies the conditions of the three tenets is the collaborative business environment (CBE). These types of environments lie at the nexus of knowledge sharing, collaboration and the business itself. Companies that build solid and well-structured CBEs will leverage their people and knowledge, while creating environments that facilitate the ability of people to work more effectively.

A collaborative business environment supersedes the traditional desktop metaphor and references an online workspace that facilitates knowledge and information work. Using a common interface, CBEs provide access to the tools the knowledge worker needs on a minute-by-minute basis. They bring people together, both synchronously and asynchronously. The CBE increases knowledge worker productivity by providing access to, and delivering, information where and when it is needed.

The road to the collaborative business environment has been a long and hard one. Although Lotus (lotus.com) Notes may be considered the original or prototypical collaborative business environment, it is important to note that its roots go back to some of the first computer programs created at the Computer-based Education Research Laboratory (CERL) at the University of Illinois in the 1970s.

In 1973, CERL released a product called Plato Notes, the sole function of which was to tag a bug report with the user's ID and the date, and make the file secure so that others couldn't delete it. The system staff could then respond to the problem report at the bottom of the screen. In 1976, Plato Group Notes was released, adding additional knowledge sharing and collaboration functionality. Ray Ozzie started thinking about a PC version of Plato Notes in 1984 and the rest is history. It took a while, but Lotus Notes came to define communication, collaboration and coordination among groups of knowledge workers.

Today, companies can avail themselves of a variety of collaboration and knowledge sharing tools; in fact, there are as many variations of technology within collaborative business environments as different types of software. Those comprise a market supersegment worth about $60 billion. That supersegment contains 22 segments ranging from such technologies as collaboration tools, portals, social software, workflow and Weblogs. By viewing the system as a whole, with the common goal and criteria of a CBE in mind, it helps managers understand what is the best fit for each workplace, because it is not possible to simply cobble together a bunch of tools and be ready for whatever the knowledge economy throws at you.

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