Knowledge Management in the Enterprise

In the beginning there was e-mail, a productive technology that enhanced communication between employees. But e-mail was formless and empty, so application developers sought to flesh it out with technologies that facilitated additional collaboration between end users. This was called groupware. But groupware also lacked perfection. Then enterprises began to associate e-mail and collaborative technologies with document management and workflow-type solutions, and a new technological aggregate, dubbed knowledge management, was created. But there is some debate over what knowledge management means, if anything.

According to Michael Kim, a business systems analyst at Infodata Systems Inc. (www.infodata.com), a company that designs enterprise document management systems, knowledge management as a distinct discipline is a relatively new hybrid.

"It’s only during the last two or three years that knowledge management started to become a separate entity from workflow, document management and collaborative software," Kim explains.

Moreover, the knowledge management space is still in its nascent stages of development. "Right now, it’s very difficult to conceptualize because there really aren’t any purely knowledge management software packages out there. They all come from legacy bases in existing document management, workflow or collaborative software packages," Kim says.

It’s the immaturity of the market that is causing a problem, says David Ferris, president of the consulting firm Ferris Research (www.ferris.com). According to Ferris, because the idea of knowledge management is so new, when the broad sense of the term is used it lacks any real meaning.

"One of the things that I want to argue is that [knowledge management] is a very, very general term that, while it does make sense, refers to a wide variety of very general ideas," Ferris claims. So what does knowledge management mean? Is it merely a vaporword, or is it a useful description of a business process?

According to Ferris, while the term knowledge management has been so broadly adopted that it sometimes seems to be little more than a vaporword, it does have significance at the core. In Ferris’ view, knowledge management is a way to describe the manner in which an organization creates an infrastructure that maximizes the availability and dissemination of information.

"The notion is fairly simple, and that is that in most organizations there’s lots of knowledge available that is simply in people’s heads or stored in documents and we can improve the efficiency of organizations by making that knowledge available," Ferris explains.

According to Infodata Systems’ Kim, organizations usually approach a knowledge management project implementation from one of two different strategic viewpoints.

"There are organizations that take a more behavioral approach [to knowledge management], and that is ‘How do we organize our business organization to facilitate and maximize the passing of knowledge?’" Kim explains. "And then there are organizations that focus on the technological aspects [of knowledge management], that is ‘How do we use technology to help our organization search for knowledge, documents, etc.’"

By Kim’s account, knowledge management happens as a productive process in organizations that most successfully meld both strategic viewpoints together.

Regardless of how it is structured, knowledge management becomes, sooner or later, a software issue as organizations determine to use document management, workflow, messaging and collaboration solutions to foster the availability and dissemination of information.

According to Ferris, knowledge management software breaks down into four main subdivisions: document management, e-mail solutions, directory services and internal portal technologies.

Ferris says a proper approach to knowledge management should encompass all four aspects. For example, a document management system could consolidate corporate documents or other information at a repository or internal portal. This would be a hierarchical directory of information similar in structure to that of Yahoo (www.yahoo.com). The repository could then provide a centralized resource for additional employee collaboration and knowledge sharing, accomplished by means of directory services and internal e-mail, news and other collaborative applications. In the end, knowledge management is all about collaboration.

Lotus Development Corp. (www.lotus.com) and Microsoft Corp. -- two vendors who battled during the groupware wars of 1996-97 -- are poised to assume leading-edge roles in the knowledge management space.

Lotus’ Notes/Domino platform has traditionally enjoyed a comfortable advantage over Microsoft’s Outlook/Exchange solution in terms of facilitating collaboration among end users. With the January release of version 1.0 of Sametime, an instant messaging program that allows end users to collaborate in real-time -- as well as the availability of Domino R/5 -- Lotus hopes to extend its advantage even further. But Microsoft isn’t conceding the market to Lotus. With the forthcoming release of a new version of its Exchange messaging and collaboration server -- code-named Platinum -- and the much-anticipated debut of Office 2000, Microsoft will directly address knowledge management for the first time. The upcoming Exchange release, for example, is expected to include a new document management system, code-named Tahoe. Microsoft is also positioning Office 2000 as a knowledge management portal.

The Four Ingredients of Knowledge Management Software

  • Document management software: This should provide a centralized index of corporate documents, giving end users an easy way to accurately retrieve documents based on content.
    • People Finders: Directory services should go beyond providing standard logistical information, and instead provide detailed information about an individual, such as education or employment history. This will theoretically empower end users to selectively determine corporate personnel who possess the knowledge, skills and experience to get a job done.
    • Internal portal: A centralized taxonomy of knowledge similar in nature to a Web site such as Yahoo, should provide a hierarchical ordering of both human resource-based and document-based knowledge types.
    • E-mail: Aside from a standard messaging platform, e-mail services should include other collaborative solutions, such as internal newsgroup discussion or message boards.

    Source: Ferris Research.