KM and BI: Linking Enterprise Information

Keith Berkland, application development manager at the law firmDickstein, Shapiro, Morin & Oshinsky LLP (www.dsmo.com ), was in the market fora unique solution. He needed a way to integrate his company’s existinginvestment in knowledge management (KM) with a business intelligence (BI)solution that would facilitate access to structured data stored in a variety ofdifferent databases.

“We had most of the knowledge management stuff figured out, and what wewere really trying to do was put a more open lens on the front of all of that,and provide access to our different sources of structured data,” he explains.

The problem, as Berkland soon discovered, was that finding such asolution wasn’t going to be easy.

“We have lots of different sources of structured data that live invarious kinds of databases, so we needed a way to bring all of that togetherwith our knowledge management stuff,” he says.

Throughout their respective histories, BI and KM technologies haveevolved as distinctly separate from one another. Each fills its own specialniche within the enterprise. BI's roll is an analytic, discovery, and reportingtool. KM is relegated to the task of organizing all the unstructured data --e-mails, discussion groups and scattered corporate intranet sites, among others-- that populate every enterprise.

But as more and more IT managers like Berkland deploy the two solutionsside-by-side, and as more vendors seek to conflate both BI and KM within theirown product offerings, the time for a convergence of the two technologies isupon us.

Knowledge Management

Ask 100 vendors what KM is and you’re bound to get 100 different answers.If a convergence between BI and KM is to take place, it’s likely to be astrange one, with lots of overlap between KM and BI tools and littleconsistency from vendor to vendor.

“Knowledge management means a lot of different things to a lot ofdifferent people,” explains Jeff Caffrey, director of knowledge management atIBM subsidiary Lotus Development Corp. (www.lotus.com).“Knowledge management fundamentally is being able to get the right set ofresources together -- whether it’s documents or whether it’s people -- andbeing able to take action on these things.”

Jon Dorrington, business development manager at Seagate Software Inc. (www.seagatesoftware.com), which markets a variety ofproducts that cater to the BI side of the fence, offers another take on KM.

“Knowledge management is more of a business strategy rather than actualtools or software,” he says. “As a strategy, knowledge management should allowan organization to take advantage of its collective information and expertise.”

According to David Ferris, principal at Ferris & Associates, a SanFrancisco-based consulting outfit that specializes in KM, one of the foremostproblems in delimiting the scope of a convergence, if any, between BI and KM isthe problem of identifying what exactly KM constitutes.

In a general sense, Ferris explains, KM covers just about any type ofinformation in an enterprise environment, whether the data is contained ine-mail or groupware systems; in discussion groups; in collaborations -- onlineand otherwise -- between employees; in files, documents or spreadsheets; or inemployees’ heads.

BI solutions, on the other hand, usually have specific purposes whenseeking to analyze structured data -- data that is stored in a number ofplaces, such as relational databases, data warehouses, or data marts -- andreport on it.

“Knowledge management is such a vague term, and people bandy around theconcept as if it’s a specific discipline,” Ferris points out. “You can talkvery generally about knowledge management and everybody can more or less agreeabout what it is in general terms, but after that it turns into a whole bunch oftechnologies with seemingly nothing in common.”

Eye of the Beholder

If there’s a convergence to be had, chances are most vendors are going toattempt to accommodate it on their own terms.

For his part, Seagate Software’s Dorrington positions knowledgemanagement as a description -- not aseparate discipline -- of an overall strategy for e-business. Consequently, hemaintains that at the center of any knowledge management strategy there must beBI tools that let companies access, analyze, organize, and share informationacross the enterprise, regardless of its source.

By Dorrington’s account, potential sources for enterprise informationcould be structured repositories, such as those associated with customerrelationship management (CRM) software, data warehouses, supply chainmanagement solutions, and relational databases.

The KM aspect of the strategy happens, Dorrington suggests, when a poweruser creates a report based on structured data with a BI tool and also providesan appropriate description of, or a context for, the hard data contained in areport in the form of unstructured data that surrounds the report itself.

“What we’re finding within organizations today is that a reportrepresents one of the most useful forms of accessing information and itprovides the hard facts about a company’s well-being,” Dorrington says. “Andwe’ve gone from departmental needs for reporting and for BI, to where you’vegot a need to deliver reporting and analysis to all of your customers, whetherthey’re internal or external. You need to provide a context for all of thisinformation.”

Lotus’ position on knowledge management and business intelligence differssome from Seagate Software's.

“Business intelligence is a core component of what goes on in the KMspace, and it has standalone value as business intelligence,” Caffrey says.“There are variations of a very focused purpose for a lot of BI applications,but they all kind of work together with other components as part of KM.”

Convergence: It’s aGroupware Thing

Vendors such as Lotus and Microsoft Corp. (www.microsoft.com)could be poised to play a significant role in any convergence of BI and KM --should a convergence ever take place.

“I would say Microsoft and Lotus are currently pushing convergence thehardest because they’re the leaders in the groupware market,” SeagateSoftware’s Dorrington observes.

Taken together, both vendors' market dominant groupware packages createterabytes of unstructured data. Managing this data and providing context bywhich it can be easily retrieved and understood is the work of KM. And bothvendors have been building more KM features into their groupware offerings.

“I think that there’s a convergence [between BI and KM], but I don’tthink it’s a convergence of the technologies themselves,” Lotus’ Caffrey says.

Lotus is poised to take the wraps off Raven, which Caffrey says describesan infrastructure for managing knowledge and BI in the enterprise. Like many KMsolutions, Raven contains a portal -- which is said to be able to organizeassets by community, by job focus, by interest, or by task -- and a discoveryengine that does the work of categorizing content -- structured andunstructured -- and rendering it, complete with context, in a searchablecatalog.

Raven will heavily leverage Lotus’ Domino messaging and groupwareplatform. But according to Caffrey, Raven lives outside Domino. “Its focus isnot to be a Domino product, but to provide access to rich content and to deriveexpertise about this content.”

Microsoft has long been touting its proposed Digital Dashboard approachto knowledge management. According to Bob Muglia, group vice president ofbusiness productivity at Microsoft, the Digital Dashboard is able to pullinformation from a variety of sources and, “bring it back and categorize it,[and] provide a view that is appropriate for the user, regardless of where thatinformation is stored.”

Microsoft’s Digital Dashboard is tightly integrated with the Outlookgroupware client, with the Windows operating system, with the .NET applicationfamily, and with the Web.

A GradualConvergence

Regardless of how individual vendors might seek to countermand -- orotherwise accommodate on their own terms -- a potential convergence between BIand KM, they’re nonetheless making it possible for the convergence to happen.

After looking at solutions from other vendors, Dickstein, Shapiro, Morin& Oshinsky’s Berkland chose the Enterprise Portal Suite from HummingbirdTechnologies Ltd. (www.hummingbird.com). Theproduct has both KM and BI capabilities.

“We used it to bring all of our databases together, so that we could haveour accounting information from Informix and our docketing system that consistsof all of our intellectual property. We brought all of these together throughthe lens of the portal,” he says, noting that his company is also evaluatingHummingbird’s Genio data transformation BI tool.

David Ahrens, product marketing strategist at Hummingbird, says hiscompany’s Enterprise Portal Suite is a framework that can accommodate KM or BItools from Hummingbird or other vendors.

“It’s a framework, and we can sell it standalone,” he explains. “What itdoesn’t give you is BI, data mining, and the rest of the offerings that areother components unto themselves. But you can add those to really get the kindof solution you want.”

John Magee, director of Internet platform marketing at Oracle Corp. (www.oracle.com), agrees that a convergence is taking placebetween BI and KM. He says Oracle is prepared to accommodate its customers inthis regard.

“We are seeing the Internet and e-business driving this trend of needingto access unstructured data at the same time that you’re accessing morestructured content,” he explains.

Magee says Oracle’s Oracle8i database has been designed on a number oflevels to facilitate near transparent access to both structured andunstructured data. Oracle8i ships with the Oracle Internet File System (IFS),which provides organizations with a way of managing unstructured and structuredinformation by storing it in an Oracle database through a file system that isaccessible from a conventional Windows explorer interface.

“When you use IFS you’re not really aware that the content is going intothe database,” he explains. “So end users can manage their content withouthaving to know whether it’s structured or unstructured.”

On the KM side of the fence, Oracle8i supports Internet content, e-mail,and just about any conceivable kind of unstructured content, Magee claims.

“We can index different formats and with IFS on Oracle8i it reallybecomes more than just a repository for rows and columns and more of a way thatcompanies can dynamically serve up content,” he says.

And there’s progress on other fronts, as well. Lotus’ forthcoming Raventool will provide toolkit connectors to other relational database platforms,Caffrey says, so it can take content from existing structured repositories,translate it on the fly, massage it for information, and return contextualizedknowledge back to end users.

“We’ve got a series of connectors that have been built to connect Dominoto other external repositories, whether they’re DB2, Oracle, or whatever,” heexplains.

Seagate Software’s Dorrington says his company is partnering with leadersin the KM field to provide a multivendor converged BI and KM solution.

“We’re dealing with some of the key KM vendors today, like Lotus andMicrosoft, so we’ve got alliances with them both in terms of their Raven andDigital Dashboard initiatives,” he says.