Rope in knowledge with powerful new knowledge management software

Your company is a rich resource, full of knowledge. Knowledge management software gives users access to that knowledge so they can solve business problems more quickly.


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In this article:
What is knowledge management?
Get in the know
Lessons learned
Do you know how much you know?
Here's the pitch: Gain corporate intuition, an organizational response to new situations, that lets your company meet and defeat a competitive challenge. The miracle of knowledge management electronically harnesses the know-how and experience of every employee.

Sound too good to be true? That's because it has been, at least until now. Knowledge management (KM) has become very useful lately, especially to organizations that sell knowledge and services, rather than products.

Illustration by Daniel Guidera
Consider AnswerThink Consulting Group of Miami. Founder Allan R. Frank says he bet the company on KM when he broke away from KPMG Peat Marwick to form his consultancy in April 1997. "Our entire knowledge repository is organized into a hierarchy like you find on Yahoo!" he says. "We're one large brain" (see http://www.yahoo.com for the prototypical example of such a hierarchy).

"Our entire knowledge repository is organized into a hierarchy like you find on Yahoo!... We're one large brain," says Allan Frank, AnswerThink Consulting Group.

Using the Dataware II Knowledge Management Suite from Dataware Technologies, AnswerThink created a hierarchy--also known in KM jargon as a taxonomy--of its partners' knowledge. This huge outline includes topics, subtopics, and sub-sub-topics. AnswerThink also identified who knew the most about which topics by scanning e-mails and by identifying who had read or written most prolifically on those topics. The taxonomy and links to the items it indexes (such as e-mail messages, white papers, presentations, checklists, and memos) is accessible over the firm's extranet.

When AnswerThink acquired a consultancy that made heavy use of the groupware package Lotus Notes, Dataware's software scanned the Notes databases and added their contents to its taxonomy while the Notes databases remained in place.

"In a world where bricks and mortar no longer count, this system lets us solve problems better and serve customers better, in very concrete ways," Frank says. "We don't have to get fancy to address key questions: How can I produce a better proposal, close a sale faster, tell one of my partners all about a client I've been working with?"

The nature of knowledge

What is knowledge management?

Knowledge management is "a set of practices that includes identifying and mapping intellectual assets within organizations, generating new knowledge for competitive advantage, making vast amounts of corporate information accessible, sharing best practices, and applying management strategies and technology that support all of the above." --CAP Ventures, http://www.capv.com/index.html

It is "a business activity with two primary aspects: Treating the knowledge component of business activities as an explicit concern of business reflected in strategy, policy, and practice at all levels of the organization; and making a direct connection between an organization's intellectual assets--both explicit (recorded) and tacit (personal know-how)--and positive business results." --"Knowledge at Work," an on-line publication, http://www.knowledge-at-work.com

It "holds the potential to enable adaptable environments in which human change is aligned with process and technology programs to provide business performance optimization." --DCI http://www.dci.com/manknowl

It is "a business practice that refers to the concept of harnessing information and knowledge, and making it effortlessly available to all employees to help them do their jobs more effectively." --Doculabs http://www.doculabs.com

Knowledge management is essentially assessing and recording who within an organization knows what (see the text box, "What is knowledge management?").

According to Thomas Koulopoulos, president of the Delphi Group, a Boston-based management consulting firm, two KM phrases, "tacit knowledge" and "explicit knowledge," go back to academic inquiries at the turn of the century exploring the nature of knowledge.

Indeed, some KM software products claim the ability to identify and record not only an executive's explicit knowledge--often defined as what he knows he knows--but also his tacit knowledge, which is what he doesn't know he knows. To identify the characteristics that best leverage an organization's intellect, the Delphi Group has developed a corporate IQ test. Go ahead, take the test!

"Giving context and revealing who knows what are the two most important aspects of knowledge management," says Geoffrey Bock, a senior consultant with the Patricia Seybold Group in Boston.

Bock says KM products can be divided into several categories.

One category is text search-and-retrieval engines, a well-established technology that is being expanded to encompass relational data, HTML pages, and other forms of information. This software usually includes filtering and notification features, which are designed to reduce information overload. It lets organizations create their own hierarchies of knowledge, Bock says. Included in this category are products from Excalibur Technologies, Fulcrum, Sovereign Hill, and Verity.

A second type of KM software undertakes the task of organizing knowledge into hierarchies, like those at the Yahoo! site, through which users can browse. Companies in this group include Perspecta, Plumtree Software, and Wise Wire.

A third type of KM software is groupware, such as Lotus Notes.

Finally, some software is designed to interview workers to determine what they do, and how, why, and with what information they do it. It then captures that expertise and makes it available organization-wide. An example is Hyperknowledge.

Get in the know

Knowledge management events coming up soon:

June 8-11, San Diego
IKMS (International Knowledge Management Executive Summit)
800-575-3367, 617-247-1511

June 22-24, Boston
November 3-5, Chicago

The Knowledge Management Conference
Sponsored by DCI
Andover, Mass.; 978-470-3880

October 13-15, Chicago
KMExpo '98
Sponsored by KMWorld; 207-236-8524

Delphi's Koulopoulos likens the use of KM software to standing around the water cooler or the coffee machine, informally sharing knowledge. "That sort of serendipity has always played a creative role," he says. "KM is really engineered serendipity."

Building a knowledge base

In the realm of structured data, like that found in databases, datamining has emerged to detect previously unsuspected patterns and connections. KM does the same thing for unstructured, textual data, Koulopoulos says.

Because KM software is designed to find patterns, companies have used it to improve the performance of help desks. Cerner, a Kansas City creator of clinical information systems, uses Casepoint Professional from Inference for both its internal and external help desks. Staffers field 3,000 calls a month, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from hospitals and laboratories using Cerner's software in mission-critical capacities. Building a knowledge base of the most common user problems has cut training time in half for Cerner's front-line support staffers, says Rhonda Dalzell, knowledge-base manager.

The backlog of support calls declined by 5% each month for a period after the knowledge base came online in June 1997. "Because of new procedures, including the knowledge-management system, we were able to double the number of issues that could be resolved in a single day," Dalzell says.

The quarter after that, clients reported their highest level of support satisfaction in the 10 years it's been measured, Dalzell says.

"We're still evaluating the financial costs and benefits of the knowledge-management system and the new help-desk procedures, but there were so many changes at once that it's difficult to pinpoint the ROI," says Dalzell. "We do know that our client satisfaction spiked dramatically after the change."

"Our client satisfaction spiked dramatically after the change [to a knowledge-management system and new help-desk procedures]," says Rhonda Dalzell, knowledge-base manager at Cerner.

At Broderbund Software of Novato, Calif., internal and Web-based Inference and similar products create casebases from unstructured data, much as database management systems create databases from structured data. These casebases house 7,000 reported problems and solutions for 700 products, says Jim Wilmott, Broderbund's product-support manager. Half of all users' problems are resolved by using the company's Web-based question-and-answer casebase, and nearly three-quarters of the users prefer on-line help to a free phone call, Wilmott says.

"We run several thousand successful [Web] searches each month," he says. "Each phone call costs us an average of $10, and each search is a phone call that wasn't made."

Pooling disparate information

Pulling together knowledge from disparate sources has already helped reduce crime in Coppell, Texas, a town of 28,000 near the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, says an official there. Capt. Wade Goolsby says beta software from GTE called Bastille has resolved three forgeries by linking them to a suspect recently arrested for a separate forgery. "When we don't have to rely on the memory of an investigator, we don't miss details that lead to arrests," he says.

Coppell's system links to police departments of six nearby cities and the local sheriff's office. Plans call for the creation of chat rooms and inter-departmental briefings.

Lessons learned

Users share what they've learned about knowledge management implementation:

Define clearly the limits of the knowledge to be codified to avoid losing your focus. As Rhonda Dalzell, knowledge-base manager for Cerner, puts it: "Don't fall prey to scope creep, where the boundaries of the project keep expanding until you lose track of what you're trying to accomplish."
Don't look for results too quickly. It can take time to build a meaningful knowledge base.
Ignore the hype and cliches. Concentrate on enhancing your organization's key goals and objectives.

Bastille is built around RetrievalWare, a search-engine technology from Excalibur Technologies. "Using RetrievalWare lets Bastille users search conceptually and with synonyms, which they couldn't do using SQL," says Brian Plotkin, operations manager for GTE Law Enforcement Services, a Tampa, Fla.-based division of GTE. It also lets users search through images using keywords, he says. The system stores records on arrests, perpetrators, and types of offense. Any field in any such record can be searched and compared.

You heard right:
Put all your eggs in one basket

KM can be as simple as pooling disparate information in one place. Software producer Platinum Technology has acquired 35 companies over the past three years, increasing its payroll to 5,000 from 1,000. To integrate all those companies' data, it created Jaguar, a huge Web-based pool of knowledge holding the contents of 82 Lotus Notes databases, 13 intranet sites, and 1,028 subdirectories on a common drive, says Glenn Shimkus, director of worldwide sales enablement. On an average day, 40% of the company's employees access Jaguar through its Notes front end, he says.

Do you know how much you know?

The following are selected vendors of knowledge management software. This listing is representative, not all-inclusive.

Dataware Technologies
The Dataware II Knowledge Management Suite

Captures, manages, and shares an organization's documents, Web pages, and other repositories, as well as individual workers' expertise.

Excalibur Technologies

Offers concept-based searching through about 50 types of files, including documents, spreadsheets, video clips, and still images, then ranks hits by importance.
http://www.excalib.com / 703-761-3700 or 800-788-7758


Interviews workers to determine what they do, and how, why, and with what information they do it; then captures that expertise and makes it available organization-wide.
781-935-9019 (U.S.)

CBR Content Navigator

Creates a case-based database for identifying and solving problems in a limited scope, such as tech support, policies, or procedures.

Information Discovery
Knowledge Access Suite

Discovers patterns within structured data and builds a pattern warehouse for future pattern finding.

Knowledge Discovery Systems
Concept Explorer

Creates sophisticated Web and ASCII queries by creating a network of links between key words and phrases.

SmartContent System

Provides server-based, drill-down, 3-D hierarchy of indexed information.

Plumtree Software
Plumtree Server

Creates Yahoo!-like card catalogue that indexes information relevant to a company's business.

"We call this knowledge management because it's more than documents," says Shimkus. "We have links to competitors' sites out on the Web, to help salespeople compare our offerings with the competition's. We have corporate travel policies, chat rooms for salespeople--most of the information central to running our business."

Jaguar cost about $750,000 to implement, including consulting, software, and staffing, Shimkus says. By conservative estimate, it resulted in $6 million in productivity and sales gains its first year, and the gains began accruing in less than three months after start-up, Shimkus says.

Serendipity on the rise

Nearly 80 companies now sell software containing the word "knowledge" in the title, says Delphi's Koulopoulos. Last year, only 40 did so. (For impartial guidance, users might want to purchase a study by Doculabs or research from the Delphi Group. Doculabs' study, compares seven vendors' KM products and the Delphi Group's research covers 50 knowledge management products. Delphi's software solutions study also profiles 25 knowledge management products.)

Estimates on the size of the KM market vary widely. CAP Ventures, a consulting firm based in Norwell, Mass., says KM is in place in at least 200 of the Fortune 1,000 companies. KMWorld a publishing and exposition company based in Camden, Maine, predicts the market will be worth $5 billion by 2000.

Koulopoulos also predicts that in the near future, KM will become nearly invisible as companies take it for granted. It will be integrated with datamining so that both relational and textual data can be categorized and searched. (For a related story in this issue, see: Link . Electronic calendars, project management, groupware, and e-mail--now four distinct applications at most companies--will be merged and shared throughout an organization.

A simple innovation already in place at oil giant Schlumberger will become widespread: Every e-mail can be submitted to a knowledge base for indexing. It's a painless way, Koulopoulos says, to build a knowledge base.

"If we can increase the occurrence of serendipity by even 10%, the payback will be enormous," Koulopoulos says. //

Dan Richman is a Seattle-based freelance writer specializing in high technology.

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