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Looking for Identity in a 2.0 World

Knowledge management has always had an identity problem. With its unclear business objective and vague value proposition (for many business leaders, at least), KM has had an uphill climb to respectability for years.

It therefore comes as little surprise that it took a new bottle to hold the old wine in order for KM to find a place at the corporate dinner table. And that bottle? It’s labeled "2.0," and the vintages come in both consumer and enterprise varietals.

"We are still talking about knowledge management," says Bob Peery, director of knowledgebase product management at Talisma. "But it is in the guise of ‘Web 2.0.’ Because of the buzz around Web 2.0, CEOs are—maybe for the first time—listening and asking questions."

He continues: "Before, the CXOs of the world wanted to know what it was going to buy them to invest in knowledge management. They thought of KM as being firmly tied to the contact center, which they viewed as a cost center. But Web 2.0, on the other hand, is OK; it’s considered customer-facing and fosters brand loyalty, so they welcome it. What some of them don’t realize—because they weren’t listening five years ago—is that we’re still just talking about KM principles. We’re preaching the same thing with Web 2.0 that we have already been preaching for years!"

Mark Buckallew, senior director of product management at InQuira, agrees: "At the CXO level, they’re interested in two major systems: one is around transactions—How do I take orders, process orders, report on financial things? The other is—How do I get my arms around all this unstructured content and knowledge? The systems that manage transactions have been around for a while; the new opportunity for applications is around information sharing." Mark’s colleague, Jason Hekl (InQuira’s VP corporate marketing), assesses KM’s change in stature as the product of a new set of tools that suddenly makes knowledge management a viable commodity. "KM can be—and has often been—thought of as mainly an academic discipline. But new tools like sophisticated search and analytics takes that academic discipline and makes it a technology you can apply. With these metrics, KM can be applied to specific business purposes," says Jason.

"It’s the advancement in search and findability that is starting to make KM more interesting to customers," adds Mark. "The ability to deliver the right answer is the driver for the resurgence in interest in KM."

"It’s the Crossing the Chasm model," adds Anand Chopra, senior director of marketing for Talisma. "Five years ago there were only the early adopters who felt strongly about KM. But now there are proof points that it works, so people are more willing to listen. Our peers and our competitors are getting tremendous benefits; we are further along the cycle now."

There are some who would add a grain of salt to a statement like that. "Companies that embrace knowledge management tend to be in industries where their products are commoditized, and that’s how they differentiate," says Bob Peery. "Outside of that, there is still reluctance."

"We as vendors and analysts talk about trends as being much more complete than they really are for a lot of customers," cautions Daryl Orts. Daryl is VP of engineering technologies at Noetix. "We can get ahead of ourselves and trumpet new visions—such as ‘BI for the masses’—while some customers haven’t caught up to the vision we had a year ago yet! There’s a big class of customer that doesn’t think about it at all...meaning they just want to get the information that gets the job done, and they don’t care what we vendors and analysts call it. Customers want to adopt the new vision, but they can’t move as nimbly as they—or we—would like.

"There ARE companies that want to embrace rapid change and transformation," Daryl adds. "For example, companies that are newly formed have a lot less inertia and can adopt new practices and new ideas more quickly. But it’s hard and risky."

That’s not skepticism. That’s reality. A lot of people were burned investing in KM without a clear roadmap to follow. "Departmental solutions have caused lots of problems," says Kayode Dada, VP of development at Vorsite. "Silos of information, the inability to share across applications, the duplication of documents all over the place. Because of this, an enterprise approach is how companies are going about managing their information. There are various reasons for this: for one, compliance issues require you to deal with information all the way across the organization in a consistent manner. They’re no longer looking at content management just from the creation perspective," Kayode says. "Web 2.0 focuses on sharing information." And thus, Kayode argues, finally putting it to its fullest use.

Anand Chopra adds: "We’re all going to do this together. The company that provides the product or service is no longer the center of the universe...it’s part of the ecosystem."

What Makes it Work... Now?
Elsewhere in this magazine is another white paper that looks more deeply into the "social networking" phenomenon and its impact on business. But it’s getting more and more difficult to parse the two subjects; there’s a component to knowledge management that has become inextricably entwined with the emergence of Web 2.0 practices and philosophies.

Here it is: Why did we struggle for so long—mostly unsuccessfully—over "incentivizing" and "making transparent" the task of filling the knowledgebase, but now all of a sudden people are gleefully spending hours on blogs and wikis doing exactly that? What did they put in the water?

It’s not the water; it’s the workplace. The generation coming to work now has been Web-aware from birth. "Executives are sitting up to listen when they’re told the Gen Y generation is NOT going to use a call center... they’re just NOT going to do it," insists Anand Chopra. "If they can’t find you online, or if their friends think you have no support online, they’re going to go to the next place."

"The people who are Web-aware from birth just expect everything to work together," says Daryl Orts. "They don’t want to close one application, log out and go into a separate application for another job." And the technology is responding... however slowly. "I don’t know if it will be SaaS or Web Services or what," says Daryl, "but something will push the bulk of technology to where it can be shared and used together. We’re not there yet, but there’s a lot of technology floating around that will get us there."

"Today’s entrepreneurs have been raised—-I don’t want to say in an era of mistrust—but they don’t take everything a company tells them as gospel," adds Bob Peery. "The businesspeople and the customers coming up now don’t really remember a time when they couldn’t open a browser and do some serious research. There’s a reason ‘Google’ is a verb these days."

As much as I agree that familiarity with online service has created a certain level of great expectation, I find it hard to accept that the arrival of 20-somethings onto the scene explains this entire seismic shift. "You’re right," says Daryl. "Waiting for my teenage kids to be in charge will be a 20-year proposition." To which I must add that thinking of MY teenage kids being "in charge" makes my brain hurt.

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