posted 3 Oct 2000 in Volume 4 Issue 2
Real world knowledge sharing
Employee knowledge at Microsoft is a valuable commodity. Steve Clayton and Paul Foster describe the functions of the intranet that ensure that Microsoft, using much of its own technology, maintains a constant information flow across the world’s most successful company.
Knowledge management is either your passion or the final cross on your buzzword bingo card. To many, the term is no longer very useful, as everyone in business and technology bends it to their own meaning. At Microsoft, we take a specific view of KM, preferring to focus on knowledge workers and how to improve the tools available to them, with the goal of improving the efficiency of the overall organisation.
Our first rule is to start small. Knowledge management is too often an umbrella term that purports to represent solutions for all issues to do with business operations. As with basic software development, it is better to break the problem down into smaller, more manageable parts. Each part should have appropriate resource focus and success goals. As each element is completed successfully, it contributes to a larger, growing solution that will, over time, evolve to fill the large space implied by the umbrella term.
With this in mind we defined a series of modules that we believe collectively provide powerful solutions for knowledge workers. Primarily developed for our developer partners, the modules are based on two prerequisites that are delivered in the Microsoft BackOffice product. But the model can easily be taken at a generic level and applied to any technology base.
Although each is presented as a separate entity, there is much overlap and fuzziness around the edges of the modules. This serves to demonstrate how each module, successfully implemented, can be further exploited by the building or evolution of another. We do not expect an organisation to implement all modules. We encourage them to identify the simplest and quickest win, as successful implementation of any module has more to do with the knowledge workers’ acceptance and sponsorship of the solution than with the technology. More modules can be added as needs emerge.
At Microsoft the adoption of this approach, and the creation of internal systems from several of the modules, led to us being awarded the 1999 Most Admired Knowledge Enterprise (MAKE), ahead of many accepted leaders in this area such as BP, KPMG and Andersen Consulting.
The two aspects we consider prerequisites to building KM solutions are a messaging and collaboration system and a ‘complete intranet’. The vast majority of organisations have invested in a messaging system, such as Exchange, and these are generally accepted as being a core part of the communications process. Linking this to KM solutions is clearly important.
The second element, Microsoft’s intranet, has gone through several iterations to make it more structured and to include a more managed publishing process. Most important, though, was the decision to bind the intranet to the Enterprise Resource Planning system, which allows us to deliver a ‘complete intranet’ – this is much more than simple publishing.
By linking to the business systems we can deliver business solutions and remove much of the paper processes that take up so much time.
Other key elements of the infrastructure are portals and search mechanisms. We identify three types of portal:
- The enterprise portal provides general information and news, plus a mechanism to discover information sources that may not be widely advertised or are beyond your normal zone of working.
- The remaining portals take a more focused view of the information delivered. The Team portal may be a temporary view. In service for the lifetime of a workgroup or team, it provides information and services pertinent to the team’s shared tasks.
- The Personnel portal, or in Microsoft terminology the Digital Dashboard, provides the most focused information that is relevant to an individual user. This will include email, calendar, tasks and contacts, plus, at least, a gateway into lines of business applications.
All the portals can be personalised, enabling the individual knowledge worker to set and adjust the content feeds.
Search is the second key element of this module. Alone, it is not a very useful tool. We all know the frustration of a search that produces a trillion finds. Search needs to be coupled with ways of guaranteeing relevance. The best way to do this is to associate an item with some controlled vocabulary.
At Microsoft we have enhanced our intranet search with two main additions:
- A highly controlled database that contains records defining the ‘best bet’ (or most relevant) item for a certain key word. This requires some manual intervention, but it is this intervention that helps resolve the trillion finds experience.
- To attribute metadata to individual items. This can be achieved using the HTML META tag or Microsoft Office document properties such as author or keywords.
A second database provides a controlled repository of terms and their taxonomy, enabling synonym searching to be achieved without preventing individual groups in the organisation from defining their own terms. Developers of the intranet or intranet publishing tools (eg .extensions for Word) can access this database by an API (application programming interface) of stored procedures, so the raw terms can be used to extend searches or populate a user interface to help build the search criteria. The end user can now search for all documents authored by a particular person without having to rely on that person’s name being in the free text of the document, as he or she can search on just the metadata.
Communities, teams and experts
The most fundamental aim of solutions built to assist the knowledge worker is to promote knowledge sharing. Knowledge workers can be grouped together in various ways. We define communities as a group sharing an interest and teams as a group sharing a common task.
This module has significant overlap with content management but retains its singular appeal particularly for organisations that have geographical barriers. At Microsoft our solution is known as eKM. This intranet community was developed to address a major issue: As the organisation (especially our technical field) has moved from selling software products to providing business solutions, field consultants and technology specialists need knowledge they can easily and quickly leverage. The increased complexity of customer solutions, and the shorter timeframes for implementing them, requires that the field community shares knowledge and expertise and reuses what others have learned to anticipate and satisfy customers’ needs.
The success of this community depends on its members taking ownership of KM activities; capturing, sharing, and reusing knowledge. With this aim in mind, it helps to define roles covering specific responsibilities. In Microsoft we have community leaders, subject matter experts and community members, all of whom have specific responsibilities.
The site itself provides a simple but well-managed mechanism for submitting knowledge in the form of white papers, presentations and other forms of information. Once published, this knowledge can be evaluated by the community and nominated as a ‘gem’. The community members can nominate a person who consistently submits gems as a subject matter expert. This whole process of collective working facilitates the forming of well-connected communities that otherwise may never have met.
While portals and search engines address the problem of finding knowledge (using all information sources in the enterprise) this module is concerned with how knowledge assets get into the KM information base. To deal with this and help the knowledge worker to stay focused on business problems (without disappearing in technology), a publishing taxonomy needs to be built, based on metadata. Microsoft’s MSW portal site is based on a well-defined taxonomy such that when content providers publish information to the site they are asked to tag this information in accordance with the taxonomy. It is the process that allows the portal and search sites to perform their job in an efficient manner as the information can be used in context. Nevertheless, building huge submission and posting systems that are complex and tedious to use will discourage users from offering their knowledge. That in turn would hinder a company from evolving a knowledge culture. It is important to balance simplicity with control when building a taxonomy and publishing scheme.
Using the content management process on MSW, results of a search are delivered showing which search index they came from and which category they belong to. By selecting the category link, users can see related information that might otherwise have been missed.
Real-time collaboration and distance learning
Real-time collaboration is clearly focused on the transfer of explicit knowledge – putting knowledge workers together to share their know-how. The telephone is a real-time collaboration tool which, after face-to-face contact, is probably the best, most frequently used method of sharing tacit information.
With the advances in bandwidth and the capabilities of personal computers, we can now deliver high quality audio and video collaboration tools to the desktop. Technologies such as Netmeeting are testimony to this. More tools are beginning to be used in this space, though, such as Instant Messaging, which is often seen initially as a toy but is a very efficient way for people to communicate quickly and easily with colleagues they know are available.
The intranet site known as Microsoft Internal Technical Education (MSTE) provides Microsoft employees with high-quality technical education and makes extensive use of multimedia. The goal of the site is to keep all staff up to speed on new technologies and practices.
MSTE uses a variety of training options to provide distance learning. They include in-classroom courses, online courses, live and online talks by experts and InfoCenters, which are collections of resources about specific subjects. The online courses are of most interest as they deliver highly technical information that the field staff would normally have to travel to Seattle for.
Using Microsoft Windows Media services (aka Netshow), we record daily events and talks and store these on a server with additional metadata such as who gave the talk, the topic, the target audience and an abstract. Users can then search for a talk based on any of these tags – for example, ‘find me all talks on Windows 2000 targeted at the sales force’. This clearly provides a cost-effective way to overcome the barriers of time and space in training a worldwide audience. Any user connected to the network can use the service at any time, day or night.
Network bandwidth is clearly a consideration in this solution so Microsoft replicates this data around several data centres worldwide. There are considerable cost and management issues involved with this system, but the benefits far outweigh them.
Finally, data analysis is concerned with turning the data held in databases and data warehouses into knowledge. Until recently, access to this kind of data required bespoke systems that were for expert users and were usually costly to implement. We can now provide rich reporting within Excel or even within a web browser using the Office Web Components.
IDSS is an internal Microsoft site that uses Office Web Components within the web browser, connecting to a SQL Server OLAP cube. The cube holds the log files from Microsoft’s web properties such as Hotmail, MSN, Carpoint and so on. In their raw format, these log files are too large and unwieldy to be of much use in extracting information or generating knowledge of how our sites are being used. However, by taking the log files and putting them into a cube, we can see the data much more easily and manipulate it. For example, we could easily find out how many users viewed the MSN home page using IE5 and Windows 2000 – over time, by viewing this metric, we will be able to see the adoption rates and eventually redesign that site to suit those users. It would be almost impossible to achieve this by looking at the log files in their raw state.
Again, this is a web-based solution that is incredibly easy for a knowledge worker to use. No specialised client software is needed, nor any knowledge of how the data has been put together. Using a simple web-based tool, knowledge workers can analyse and draw conclusions from several hundred gigabytes of data in a matter of seconds.
In conclusion, the examples above show how KM has been put into practice for knowledge workers at Microsoft. The intranet is an incredibly important tool for publishing and finding information. By focusing on a pragmatic approach of delivering solutions rather than focusing on the detail of what KM is, it is possible to make real changes in the way people work and provide benefit through the sharing of many different types of knowledge. KM
Steve Clayton is principal systems engineer and Paul Foster is architectural systems engineer for Microsoft. They can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org