posted 5 Apr 2004 in Volume 7 Issue 7
Tools for the personal knowledge space
The demands on today's employees to work more efficiently and effectively and create more value while workloads increase mean that managing one's personal knowledge is an essential skill. Dan Holtshouse examines some of the tools that organisations can invest in to help workers manage the information and knowledge they need on a daily basis.
Everything about work – where we work, how long we work, our methods of working, what tools and information we work with – is changing. Workers say they are putting in longer hours and overwhelmingly cite heavier workloads as a driving factor. What we are witnessing is an accumulation of pressures from the drive for profitability, the accelerating pace of change in business processes driven by technology, and the frequent disruption to work patterns and social networks that help buffer the resulting stress.
To cope with this rate of change and the pressure to innovate continually, organisations are seeking skilled employees who can work in this fast-paced environment and create the new values needed to attract and retain customers. Competition for these skills will continue to push wages up, so organisations must find ways to systematically generate higher value work from their employees.
To address the challenge of continually raising the value of work, managing one’s personal knowledge in the workplace is an important topic today given that information and knowledge workers spend large amounts of time processing information from e-mails, web searches and database queries while creating reports and analysing studies, and so on. From one point of view, we can argue that these workers have not received much help to manage and organise their personal knowledge space since the focus of most organisations has been on optimising business processes where one solution fits all. On the other hand, as workers’ support tools and process infrastructures become more reflective of the actual work practices of each unique group of workers, their personal knowledge space is naturally better supported because work process changes are more closely aligned to worker practices and the actual nature of personal work.
To support the perspective that workers are receiving help in managing their information and knowledge in the workplace, five examples are presented here. These tools include:
- Dashboards for consolidating multiple disparate information streams into integrated user interfaces that facilitate work in a more seamless and holistic way;
- Personalisation tools and filters that refine the content of information streams to ensure relevancy and timeliness in order to reduce overload and wasted time searching through irrelevant information;
- Smart agents and smart documents that ‘take action’ on behalf of workers, thereby reducing or eliminating semi-routine work as well as keeping workers informed on task progress;
- Scanning tools that ‘look ahead’ of normal incoming information streams to detect potential problems or issues before they become a crisis. ‘Sense and respond’ systems are proactive extensions of a worker’s sphere of influence and are pre-emptive problem solvers that systematically initiate actions and close the loop on the worker’s behalf;
- Renewed utilisation and appreciation for people networks and personal contacts, which are made more useable and accessible through collaboration and team-support environments.
Dashboards for consolidating information streams
One of the common ways information workers manage their work information flow is to bring disparate information streams into an integrated setting or dashboard where everything is easily accessible. This need has partly driven the rapid adoption of web portals in the workplace.
One such application for a web portal is within customer call centres. Call centres are notoriously busy, noisy and stressful places to work. Employee burnout and turnover are usually high as operators cope with large call volumes, demanding customers and the need to scour many sources for constantly changing information about complex new products, services and technologies. In the telecommunications industry for instance, call-centre operators not only handle typical questions about accounts, pricing, coverage contacts and billing, but they also field inquiries about ISDN lines, modems, mobile phones and internet services that are all constantly changing.
We worked with one European telecommunications company, for example, to help their call-centre operators master their information and knowledge-management challenges. Before we started the project, we found that the operators used at least three different databases and went through many steps to obtain the electronic information they needed to answer customers’ questions. In some cases, they had to wait as long as 90 seconds for answers to a query and as a result, many operators kept cheat sheets and folders on their desks to keep track of shortcuts to navigate the electronic information stream, as well as paper-based product and services updates. As a result, the company lost speed, depth, consistency and flexibility in handling users’ needs.
To improve the call-centre operators’ management of their personal information space, a single-user interface was developed to act as a control panel for the operators’ audio headsets, for phone and desktop conferencing, and as a consolidation portal to all the information in the system. The consolidated information streams included:
- Complete customer information stored on a legacy mainframe system;
- All product, services and calling rates information stored on the company intranet;
- A new repository for operator-generated trouble-shooting tips, shortcuts, etc;
- More product, services and administrative updates that were previously distributed on paper were now online.
These information streams are consolidated and integrated by a core software program that integrates all of the information sources including e-mail and intranet or internet-browsing history. It also stores and manages rules for systems operation, user profiles and preferences, along with measurement and performance data. Users and supervisors therefore have one window through which they can search for answers to customer questions, ask for help, communicate with each other and gain information about their working environment and performance. Integral to the system is a capability to share a trouble-shooting solution with colleagues. By simply clicking on a button labelled ‘proposing a new tip’, the suggestion is sent to a supervisor who validates it and adds it to a knowledge-sharing repository for rapid use by other operators. This way, each operator can co-build a collective knowledge base of the latest information.
This call-centre project is an example of personal knowledge management as the overall system was designed uniquely for these operators. Researchers from our Palo Alto Research Center (Parc) interviewed call-centre staff onsite and carried out ethnographic studies. By observing work practices and learning where operators turned to for answers to particular questions, and when they used electronic or paper sources, the Parc researchers were able to guide the new system design and centreit around a single-user interface. This consolidated and integrated all the necessary information streams to make it more manageable and productive so that the operators had management control over the personal information and knowledge required for the job.
Personalisation of incoming information streams
With the advent of a wide range of smart software tools, information streams from e-mails, web postings, database retrievals or web searches can be highly personalised to better match the information with exactly what users need. The outcome is a filtered inflow of information, eliminating unwanted data that takes time to sift through and find the good stuff. Knowledge worker are able to improve the management of their personal knowledge space so it is only populated with information relevant to the job at hand.
We experienced this situation when we worked with a large patent office. The organisation wanted to increase worker productivity when managing a rapidly growing patent-processing workload. At a typical patent office, staff members pass dossiers of documentation to one another as they examine thick applications, methodically reviewing every one and putting months of research and analysis into each decision. With the rate of applications growing by, on average, 20 per cent a year, many of these patent organisations are having to rethink the way they work to keep from being buried in applications. A combination of new processes, technology and changes in culture can make knowledge work more productive. The organisation is digitally accelerating slow-moving paperwork and offering online research and electronic filing to ensure a seamless flow of information to the patent professionals.
One of the first jobs in any patent office is to pre-classify applications by deciding what category it belongs to and then route it to the proper department for handling. Typically, this has been a manual process: an employee reads through applications and follows a complex set of rules to make a decision about where to send it. In a pilot project, to help with this sorting problem, categorising software was used to replace the manual sorting process by automatically searching and identifying topics in new classification.
The categoriser can scan and understand documents written in 12 languages. It analyses entire documents to ensure highly relevant control, manages thousands of categories and millions of documents while adapting to different writing styles to continuously improve its performance and accuracy. With this kind of information categorisation and upstream filtering, workers can handle patents more productively and those involved with the manual sorting process can be moved to more meaningful jobs.
Similar tools for categorisation, affinity and peer-group referral exist for e-mail, websites and document repositories that help pre-select information streams inbound to the information worker. This is another way workers receive help in managing their personal information flow.
Smart documents that take action
The idea of making information smart enough so that it is self-empowered to act on its own is not new. It has been highly touted in the artificial-intelligence movement and more recently with smart-software-agent concepts that act like avatars for doing work on behalf of their owners. However, with the advent of XML in Microsoft Office, the concept of making information self-acting through smart documents takes on new meaning through a wave of time-saving capabilities that will increase information workers’ productivity.
For example, one of the most important documents in the airline industry is called a maintenance and engineering bulletin (M&E). It contains technical information, such as services alerts and changes in repair procedure that mechanics must know to maintain the aeroplanes effectively.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires airlines to have a process in place to ensure that every technician acknowledges that they have read the bulletin within a certain period. The FAA audits this regularly.
Individual workers in charge of the end-to-end process for creating, approving and tracking readership of these bulletins (typically sent to 3,500 people) had to manage a great deal of information as well as ensure that the overall process was working well. The flow of information was originally about 90 per cent manual and highly inefficient. Productivity was improved in several areas but, more importantly the information flow for the managers in charge of the process was substantially enhanced by creating a smart document that structures its own content, and then automates the approval cycle and distribution. The smart document also tracks the critical reader sign off, issues non-compliance alerts, retires the document to a central repository and provides reporting statistics to the key managers.
By making this effort to understand how people really work, through an information-productivity assessment and by exploiting the XML tagging feature in Microsoft Office 2003, we were able to transform the information-handling burden. The XML capability makes it possible to separate the content of a document from its particular form. The content can then be extracted or activated with instructions to perform certain tasks. The M&E document is a good example here. By embedding intelligence in the document itself, the highly manual, information-intensive job of ensuring compliance of an important process has been reduced in complexity and has freed up workers to do higher value work. From the point of view of the key managers handling the process, the personal flow of information has been improved substantially by leveraging the capabilities of their new agents, smart documents.
Systems that ‘scan the edges’ for trends and problems
Most of the approaches discussed so far figure out how to frame and tame all the information streams bombarding the individual worker. By consolidating inputs to make them manageable, filtering and pre-processing information to eliminate unnecessary glut and arming smart documents to do some of the work, the knowledge worker frees up valuable time for other higher value tasks. In addition to these PKM approaches, there is another way we can help knowledge workers. Sense-and-respond systems offer the ability to better manage the personal workspace as they continuously scan the horizon or edges for trends and problems so they can be dealt with before they become a crisis.
For example, Xerox’s sales teams that work with our major customers are continually looking for ways to keep up with the information required to support our customers. This includes learning about existing and emerging needs for products and services as well as responding quickly to customer problems or issues. Our customer-support centres are open 24/7 but still rely on the customer to let us know if a problem exists. However, many issues that irritate customers are missed by conventional customer surveys, which use after-the-fact questionnaires to capture feedback once problems have passed. Getting directly to our end users when they have something to tell us is a continuing challenge. In response, we decided to implement a sea change in thinking to be more anticipatory through a sense-and-respond strategy, rather than a wait-and-scramble approach.
We implemented a sense-and-respond strategy within a system called Sentinel. Sentinel ‘wires’ the customer workplace with sensors that give us instant feedback on their experiences as they have them. Sentinel allows the account managers to find out what is on the customer’s mind and use logic built into the technology to analyse, make sense of, and act on it. It is more like a good listener or a therapist than a questioner.
At a large financial institution in the US, accompanying half of the roughly 2,000 jobs that we perform for the institution every month is an e-mail message asking one simple question: were you satisfied or was there a problem? The message tells recipients to delete the e-mail if they were satisfied with the job. Otherwise, the note says, “click on the frowning yellow face and tell us what is wrong”.
Clicking on the unhappy face takes the customer to the heyxerox.com website, where he or she is asked to explain the problem in their own words. The site immediately notifies Xerox account managers that there is trouble, creates an electronic problem ticket, prompts a telephone call to the customer within minutes and activates a ‘spanking loop’ that keeps the issue on Xerox’s front burner until the customer confirms it has been resolved. To our surprise, customers mostly click on the happy face to tell us that we have done well, which enables us to keep our finger on what we are doing right with our customers. We are in the process of expanding Sentinel to a broad cross-section of Xerox customers as we find that the system reliably raises customer satisfaction while giving account managers a heads-up on future products and service needs.
Sentinel, with its sense-and-respond capability, enables the highly skilled customer account managers to continuously scan thousands of customer touch points within an account to build a real-time picture of the customer’s well being and use the scanning information to be pre-emptive in adapting to new customer needs as they occur. This is an example of proactively generating a regular and personal information flow for account managers to avoid any emerging surprises or crises.
Social networks that enhance personal space
Despite all the tools and guidelines for utilising the latest and best technology to connect with the right information streams, access the best repositories, utilise the latest web portals and dashboards, there is still another strategy that never seems to lose its value over time. Many people find out what they need to know directly from another person. Some workers, instead of relying on rapid access to multiple information sources, rely primarily on their person-to-person network list. To these workers, the knowledge necessary to do their work resides solely in what they know, and what their networks of people know.
A recent study conducted with our service engineers reinforces this perspective on PKM. The study aimed to find out how knowledge sharing related to personal performance on the job. We interviewed a group of engineers about characteristics they valued or found desirable in their co-workers: such as their strengths and attitudes towards teamwork, problem solving, and information and knowledge sharing. We asked them what they would do when confronted with a problem they had not seen before. If they only had one resource, what would it be and why? We also asked what motivated them to share knowledge and the difference it made to them.
Low and average performers consistently responded differently to high performers about their world, teamwork, knowledge and sharing, which surprised us. Exceptional performers, as rated by their managers, appeared to be on a different plane to low performers. Their mentality was one of inclusion to their work that was absent from the lower performers. They spoke more positively about the value of knowledge and sharing, and the learning that takes place when they share. The high performers were far more likely to view their work as a way of building worth through knowledge rather than focusing on just keeping up with the problems and avoiding information overload.
For example, the study found that high performers relied on knowledge to get their job done; low performers relied on information. High performers spoke of knowledge when describing their work, while low performers used information to explain their tasks. High performers were more likely to cite their knowledge as key assets that they brought to their team, while low performers were more likely to refer to their access to information as a key asset. High performers referred to team participation as an opportunity to share knowledge with others and bring a team perspective to problem solving. Low performers cited the benefits of team participation as a resource that brought extra pairs of hands for work that needed to be done.
In keeping with this trend, low performers said they would choose a service manual or some other source of information to solve a problem if they could only have access to one resource. The reasoning here is that they believed that the wealth of information in manuals was superior to that held by specialists. High performers, on the other hand, were more likely to choose another person as their information source. The rationale here is that two people will have different trains of thought and while you can look at a problem in one light, someone else will look at it differently.
They consider two active minds co-create a better answer and both grow through the experience.
These interviews demonstrate that high performers place great value on their personal networks and see them as an important attribute of their personal knowledge space. They treat the intangible aspects embodied by social networks of working relationships as important as portals, filters and smart agents when defining a productive environment for knowledge work. In a work setting, the high performers often set the tone and benchmarks for the rest of the community. We expect the use of personal people networks to grow in importance on the list of capabilities for managing the personal workspace.
These examples are just a few of the many tools, systems and applications available today to help information and knowledge workers manage their personal workspace more productivity. These capabilities are particularly effective if they are designed to reflect employees’ specific working practices rather than attempting to implement one design that fits all. Some of these capabilities, like smart documents or agents, and sense-and-respond systems, go beyond simply making incoming information easier to handle by anticipating the action required and in some cases actually take action on the behalf of the worker.
All of these tools, in one way or another, help raise the value of work by improving its quality, increasing the speed of work, fostering innovation, eliminating routine work and enabling collaboration. By systematically increasing value through these kinds of capabilities, the knowledge worker continues to be the most valuable asset of all.
Dan Holtshouse is director of corporate strategy at Xerox. He can be contacted at email@example.com