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Knowledge management – the right connections

It isn’t easy to pin down exactly what knowledge management (KM) means. Search for it on the internet and you’ll get a huge number of hits, and discover the existence of several hundred vendors of KM services and software. From this you’ll discern that KM has something to do with an organisation’s ability to exploit what it knows – the knowledge embodied in its people, data and business processes. KM initiatives usually involve an attempt to identify key knowledge assets and then harness them to business goals. But beyond that it is hard to get much consensus of opinion.

This somewhat woolly depiction of KM means that whenever it comes into vogue almost anyone can claim to offer a KM solution – and quite plausibly, too. KM solutions have been built around document management systems, customer relationship management systems, call centre software, human relations software and, of course, around databases and data-mining systems, not to mention messaging systems, intranets and company portals. Yet when KM goes out of vogue, as it periodically does, many vendors lose interest.

So it’s easy to find neglected KM web sites and ill-supported orphan KM products. It’s tempting to assume that all those user organisations for which KM is of obvious benefit – those for example that employ lots of researchers, deal in patents or are the CIA (which has at least one major document-based KM system) – already have their systems in place. The rest of us ignore KM or treat the subject with profound scepticism.

This is a shame as the basic premise still stands: most of us have lots of relevant knowledge in-house that we’ve already paid for but are not exploiting properly. The trick is to dig it out and get people using it without getting bogged down in IT system deployment.

The key, as always, is to keep things simple. One way is to forget about clever ways of extracting data from IT systems for the moment, and to concentrate instead on the people side of the equation. Ask yourself if you have people who would benefit from talking to each other but who aren’t.

Are there people who already have the answers to problems that are slowing up colleagues elsewhere in the organisation or causing unnecessary duplication of effort? If so, you could concentrate on linking these people together and leave existing processes and IT systems alone.

Even this drastic simplification still leaves many different ways you could attempt to put the people in touch with each other. In a recent report*, Etienne Wenger, who is something of a guru on this topic, surveys eight categories of software that can be used to help. The one I’m going to concentrate on here is the knowledge exchange. This is not because it is the best in all circumstances, but because it is generally quick to deploy and has the necessary gloss and novelty to get users interested.

It also has the great advantage that you can go and look at some working examples immediately, because the knowledge exchange has much in common with expert exchanges and so-called skills procurement hubs developed for the public internet. Many in-house knowledge-sharing initiatives use identical software.

For example, the system you can see in action at, a general question-and-answer service aimed at consumers, is now also being used in-house by Proctor & Gamble. The company has deployed it on the corporate intranet to allow 18,000 staff to locate and swap information with colleagues.

Integra/Genuity Europe, another AskMe user, has over half its staff using the system following a rapid roll-out (see case study box). Other firms offering expert-exchange-derived software for KM include Swiss-based and US-based

The point here isn’t what type of information the users of these sites are swapping or trading, but whether the way these interactions are being facilitated has anything to offer for the sharing of in-house knowledge.

All these systems provide common services, which could be seen as relevant to company-wide information sharing such as: a list of experts with their competencies and contact details; a forum for private and public questions and answers; a searchable archive of previous questions & answers; and a way for users to rate experts and record comments about them. Other features supported include: comprehensive usage tracking and statistics; payment or other incentives for experts; chasing up expert responses; document attachment and archiving; and real-time multi-person conferencing.

All of these systems are simple to roll out to end-users’ desktops – all they require is a standard web browser. At the server end you can either buy the software (with or without implementation help) or get the developer or one of their partners to host it for you on an ASP (application service provider) basis.

Not all knowledge exchange software is derived from software used on public web sites. Sharenet was developed in-house by Siemens and successfully rolled out to sales staff. It is now being marketed by Agilience. Edinburgh-based Orbital Software’s Organik was also intended as a corporate tool: it’s being deployed globally by Ericsson.

It has to be admitted the knowledge exchange approach, which focuses on retrieving information from individuals, only tackles part of the knowledge management problem. At some stage it may be necessary to link processes together more systematically or extract data tied up in existing IT systems.

Nonetheless, starting from the people end has much to recommend it. The real obstacle to effective KM in most organisations is cultural. Do your staff really want to share knowledge? Will they actually use any system you build?

Rather than investing in an all-singing all-dancing KM set-up only to find out the answer is no, it makes sense to give the punters something simple and relatively cheap to play with first. If the response is positive you can venture further out into the KM minefield.

* Supporting Communities of Practice – A Survey of Technologies, by Etienne Wenger is available from


Integra Europe is a pan-European company that carries out web and application hosting. It has 940 employees, scattered across nine countries, including the UK. Its clients include the London Metal Exchange, France Telecom and Shell.

The background to the company’s interest in KM is the consolidation currently going on in the hosting business. Integra acquired 12 companies in 2000 and 2001, and was in turn taken over by US network services giant Genuity.

“We needed to rapidly integrate the organisation – to get people who had never met before to work under the same umbrella, and to leverage their expertise – so we decided to rapidly implement a knowledge-sharing system,” says Aldo Pomponi, Integra’s vice-president of engineering and knowledge management. “We selected AskMe because it was well recognised in the market, it was an out-of-the-box solution and at least on paper it covered all the requirements we had.”

The programme started on 20 June 2001 with a workshop lunch to which Integra invited 35 experts. Three months later the system had 552 registered users, and 183 experts.

“AskMe produces a lot of metrics for measuring the behaviour of people inside the system, and we have taken input from these metrics to create a reward program,” says Pomponi. “It starts with public recognition of the user and the expert – for example mentioning them in the corporate or newsletter putting their picture on the portal. We also send good experts to conferences. And we have minor rewards like gifts and tokens.”

Because Integra operates in nine countries, it has been important to define a local host for each country – an evangelist for the knowledge-sharing initiative. He or she physically gives out the gifts and makes the knowledge-sharing initiative enjoyable.

“The evangelist is someone who has time to stay with people, to encourage them, to listen to them. It could be a human resource manager or one of the consultants, but generally it’s not a top manager,” says Pomponi.

As soon as anyone has a conversation with an expert through AskMe, it can be captured and made re-usable for the benefit of others. “The most critical success factor is having users asking questions,” says Pomponi.

“If you don’t have users asking questions you don’t have experts answering, and you cannot re-use anything.”

Pomponi certainly feels the investment in KM was justified, mainly because employees have a better sense of belonging to the company, which he feels is particularly important for a company built on experts.

Another advantage is increased standardisation. “We can now improve efficiency because we have standardised the way we work,” he says. “The knowledge database we are creating is becoming the rules for running the business.”

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