KM in an unwired enterprise
The world of information management and in particular that of unstructured data management (in the form of e-mails, word documents, etc) is on the brink of crossing the chasm. Database and enterprise content management (ECM) vendors alike are finally getting mind share and traction to the broader IT market. This is due in large part to the drive to embrace new regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley and Basel II, and the simple need to bring structure, order and security to business-critical information.
The current demand for ECM- and KM-related software is driven by the very real need to meet the requirements of new regulations. Yet, in a sense, what we are seeing is a late response to an ever evolving and ever more complex, critical need. The sheer volumes of unstructured data being created demand a response. The volume issues alone, complemented by regulatory requirements, make a compelling reason to deploy systems to effectively manage knowledge. In that regard, it is worth stating upfront that employing ECM-style technologies to an enterprise, indeed across the enterprise, is an excellent start to managing content and meeting compliancy regulations. However, it appears that new hardware and access routes to the data, particularly in the wireless and broader mobility sectors, are already throwing a monkey wrench into those well-intentioned activities.
One area of KM that has undergone significant recent change has been the relative status of electronic data within the business community. We have seen over the past generation an evolution from the glasshouse environment of early mainframes, through to the vibrant and ever changing unwired enterprise of today. Computing is not new, nor is digital data, but up until very recently digital data sources were not considered to be on a level footing with paper-based data sources. Only in the past few years have digital signatures had full legal status in many countries.
The drive of the dot.com era was to supersede the paper-driven businesses of the past. To some extent we can say that has been achieved, but another way of looking at the situation is to say that a huge amount of business information is now digital, but that paper has not left the office. In fact, rather than replace paper, in many instances digital information now co-exists alongside paper. The continued need to manage paper documents and records adds a major degree of complexity to an already complicated situation. Yet, the circumstances that most businesses are struggling to manage is moving to an even greater level of unmanageability--long before the initial information management issues have been resolved.
Wipro PSA interviews well over a hundred large enterprises each year, and we have noticed a significant upsurge in expectations regarding the ability to operate remotely. Just a few years ago (when ECM tools were being developed), most people accessed digital information from a single device, usually a desktop computer that was linked in some way to a central corporate system. In fact, almost all the KM software available today was designed with the following scenario in mind:
- Digital information will eventually replace paper.
- Everyone will access the digital information via a desktop.
- It will be linked via a WAN or LAN.
- It will be stored in a centralized repository.
But that scenario has not been played out and is unlikely to ever be.
What has happened is that PCs are gradually being replaced by laptops, and in turn by handheld devices such as phones or PDAs, which are in parallel being used to access and produce ever more unstructured data (such as IMs, e-mails and photographs). The sheer variety of options to access knowledge assets within an organization is dazzling--from TV Web access in a hotel room, to wireless connectivity via a public network on a laptop, to creating and sending data files (photos, for example) on handhelds via a wireless network.
Accessing the information has become ever easier, with more and more sophisticated parsing technologies becoming mainstream. The push aspect of mobility is now pretty advanced, but the means to respond back to information pushed out to you is still in its infancy. And securely managing the information to and fro in harmony with existing business-critical information appears to be an area where the discussion is yet to fully begin.
The desire by business units to deliver truly remote and mobile working environments is worthy, and driven by a wide range of dynamics: from the need to reduce office overhead costs, to providing field-based workers with mission-critical connectivity, to the simple desire to possess new and funky wireless technology, such as the latest laptops, cell phones and PDAs.
At Wipro we see a number of trends emerge. Although mobile wireless devices are often purchased centrally, security and information management issues are seldom fully addressed in the process. The desire of firms and employees to keep up with new technologies often overrides legitimate concerns about knowledge sharing and basic security issues. The situation is likely to get worse as wireless technologies race ahead in their sophistication. Users will adopt the capabilities of GPS, biometric, infrared, Bluetooth, etc., without having procedures or corporate guidelines to lead them. We are accessing and exchanging information on more mobile devices in an increasingly haphazard and insecure manner. For example, few firms have secure employee portals that ensure all business communications are conducted over secure networks. Even those that do have such arrangements, find it nearly impossible to stop constant breaches of the protocol.
Most new cell phones are capable of sending and receiving content, and in particular attention is focused on the huge growth of handheld e-mail devices such as Smartphones and BlackBerries. Just a look at those two devices and their use in the corporate environment highlights the many security issues that might need to be addressed, and that could have implications for other mobile-enabled devices.
Some questions to ask are:
- How is knowledge being captured?
- How is knowledge being classified?
- Are knowledge workers more inclined to exchange and gain knowledge verbally?
- Do some knowledge workers prefer to read and write to exchange and gain knowledge?
- How do we ensure that knowledge sources are current and accurate in an unwired enterprise?
- Does the unwired enterprise drive a need to centrally manage information?
- How can we track and study the interactions between knowledge workers?
- How can we best support an unwired enterprise?
- Do limitations to meet regulatory requirements impact on the desire to share and access information in this environment?
The relentless drive toward the unwired enterprise brings with it a plethora of issues for KM professionals to address. In addition the disorganized route to mobility should be raising many red flags for regulators. Clearly it would be counterproductive to stop people from using cell phones or wireless laptops and PDAs to enable office productivity. But at some point, business-critical information needs to be captured and managed, regardless of where it originates or through which devices it passes. There are no easy answers to any of these questions, but serious examination is overdue about where limitations should be drawn and what can be done realistically to manage mobile content and knowledge assets.
Rolling out wireless devices to individual users by job function is the typical manner in which organizations deploy new devices. However, is business-critical information in the back office being stored and managed in a way that will dovetail with that selective approach to deployment. If a mobile device is a status symbol or privilege, then it is likely that senior organization members--those most closely regulated by Sarbanes-Oxley and other rules--are being allowed to gather, exchange and consume business information in an uncontrolled environment.
Security tends to be focused on stopping unauthorized users from accessing the network and/or delivering viruses. However, even though as a concept security extends well beyond that--down to folder or document level access rights in most KM and content management-related software tools--once a piece of content leaves the controlled environment it generally becomes unmanaged and exists away from any centralized control.
Telecom service providers are increasingly playing a major role, by default, in providing support for knowledge transfer activity within organizations. Yet, those providers are seldom considered relevant by KM practitioners. Increasingly we must view telecom and IT services as converged, and build out our strategies, particularly those for business-related knowledge activities in an unwired environment. Rather than be driven by a desire for new technology and sophistication, businesses need to build clear strategies based on hard business needs, operating within legal and regulatory constraints, and providing core and consistent management of business-critical knowledge assets.
Alan Pelz-Sharpe is principal strategist and consultant at Wipro PSA Consulting, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org