posted 1 Dec 1998 in Volume 2 Issue 4
Making the connection between the mind
and the database
As winner of last year's 'Knowledge Access and Capture' award, Lotus Development has seen some real business returns from the successful implementation of its knowledge base. The system has been widely accepted throughout the company as the source of customer reference material. Staff naturally contribute and use the knowledge contained there to focus marketing drives and support individual sales campaigns worldwide. Gavin Lennox and Ian McNairn consider the lessons learned about how to build a successful knowledge management architecture, and describe how the customer knowledge base is working a year on from the award.
In developing our own knowledge management system and our work with customers, we at Lotus have identified some key issues that must be addressed in designing a knowledge management architecture. These are based on:
|determining who knows what|
|encouraging people to share knowledge|
|measuring the success of schemes for knowledge sharing|
|creating a place for real-time communication|
|managing the integration of 'tacit' and 'explicit' knowledge|
|providing clear, simple navigation through corporate knowledge|
|learning from experience|
Determining who knows what
Let's start with a basic proposition for knowledge management: 'Knowledge is power...information isn't' . This has to be understood before organizations can gain any benefit from knowledge management. However, this isn't only about systems that 'manage' the knowledge drawn from the heads of employees. There are, and always will be two distinct pools of knowledge in any company. 'Explicit' knowledge exists as electronically digitised bits in corporate repositories, but 'tacit' knowledge remains embedded in the minds of its vital assets, the employees.
Explicit knowledge locked in documents, reports, spreadsheets, video, audio clips, databases etc. needs to be managed, and managed well, but this is not the most important task.
Far more critical is being able to find the people with the required tacit knowledge. Who, for example is the person in the company with specific knowledge about a particular process, situation or customer? Which employee has German or French language skills? Who has a unique understanding of a customer's subject area?
Ideally, a corporate skills database (directory, register or whatever it may be called) would contain all the necessary information, (i.e. addresses, email, phone, fax and physical locations), what people do (job title, description, role, secretary or PA, department and division) and most importantly, what they know (languages, qualifications, skill areas and expertise).
Such a valuable database needs to be maintained. The technology used to underpin knowledge management must make it easy to update expertise profiles automatically and control access to different sections of skill profiles, according to the needs of HR, IT and the individuals themselves. Left to humans to maintain, the knowledge base will quickly become out-of-date and lose its value.
In addition, technology can use automatic linguistic analysis processes to determine individual's areas of expertise. This is done by analysing their activity in creating, reading and reviewing documents.
From this starting point of being able to find 'Who knows what', the development of a wide array of knowledge management initiatives becomes possible.
Encouraging people to share knowledge
As we found at Lotus, probably the biggest non-technological hurdle in knowledge management is motivating individuals to share their hard-earned knowledge. The cultural shift from 'knowledge is power' to 'shared knowledge is power' has to be introduced gradually, but implacably. All the technology in the world will not provide an effective knowledge-based organisation if this problem is not tackled.
There are many motivators for sharing, but a combination of greed (rewards for material shared); altruism (I know that sharing is something I want to do); kin selection (by helping my team to be successful, I will benefit from their success) and fear (if I don't share, I'll lose my job) are those most likely driving forces in companies today.
Lotus' experiences in developing and maintaining its customer reference knowledge base, outlined later in this article demonstrate the variety of methods that can be used to encourage knowledge sharing.
Measuring the success of schemes for knowledge sharing
It is critical that objective measures of how much/often/well/successfully we are sharing knowledge in the organisation are used to highlight 'good sharers' and possibly reward them. This is a technical issue, as the underlying fabric of an organisation's knowledge framework will determine whether these objective metrics can be easily provided.
It is simple to produce metrics like 'These are the top twenty documents referenced this week' or 'Here are the top ten document authors in our company this month' or 'These are the most referenced tables/calculations in our group to date'. But to do this effectively, there must be an extended search mechanism stretching across all the repositories in the organisation, including Lotus Notes applications, the intranet, databases and possibly even the Internet. The search mechanism must operate symbiotically within the knowledge management architecture.
The structure of searches is a source of valuable knowledge. While the results of any search will age as the content changes, an understanding of the logic and thinking behind the search could be all that is needed for a 'tacit-to-tacit' transfer of knowledge between people.
A place for real-time communication
However hard we try, not all knowledge will become explicit and accessible through a knowledge base. Tacit knowledge remains embedded in the minds of key employees and realistically, the only way to get at that knowledge is to communicate with individuals in real time.
This raises the issue of knowledge architecture to a new level. Once you have searched the corporate knowledge base for a document relating to the subject you are working on, or found a name of someone who could help, you will want to start 'talking' to them immediately. The 'Sametime' concept used within Lotus means that you can now look at the document's author, or the entry from the skills directory and establish immediately if they are currently online on the corporate network. Simply clicking a button enables a real time chat with that person. How the chat continues depends on what channel (e.g. telephone, video or chat) is most appropriate at the time.
This really starts to leverage the advantage an organisation can gain from a cohesive knowledge architecture. By linking document repositories, skills directories, linguistic analysis 'Sametime' etc. at last, the question of whether knowledge is tacit or explicit becomes less important compared to whether you can frame your search clearly and accurately.
Managing the integration of tacit and explicit knowledge
Organizations need systems that are designed to 'manage' explicit knowledge effectively and efficiently (see 1 in Figure 1). Just as vital though, is a system that facilitates and enhances the 'tacit-to-tacit' knowledge exchange. This will be a central activity for any vibrant company (2). Equally critical is the need to facilitate tacit-to-explicit conversion (3). Lastly, and arguably the most difficult (maybe the most important in the long run) is the ability to ease explicit-to-tacit learning across the organisational structure (4).
In focusing on these four areas, Lotus has developed a comprehensive
knowledge management architecture of knowledge tools, frameworks, applications
and services based around its Lotus Domino and Lotus Notes applications
development environment. Examples of these are extensions of Lotus Domino such
as People Profiling, Extended Search, Taxonomy Generators,' Sametime' and
Content Mapping. Specific applications are also implemented such as distance
learning (Learning Space), a virtual team forum and action tracking (TeamRoom),
and enterprise document management (Domino.Doc). Lotus also runs Executive
Knowledge Workshops to help define strategic direction. All of this extends the
corporate development platform that a Lotus Notes and Domino infrastructure
confers on a wise organisation.
Figure 1. Managing tacit and explicit knowledge
Clear, simple navigation through corporate knowledge
Often, unless there are clear road signs pointing to some site of special significance, we can drive past it daily and never know it exists. Corporate knowledge is no different. Unless we know it is there, we may never think to search for it. Systems that push summaries, snippets and tasters of what is new towards users, based on their personal interest profiles, are therefore a very useful step in the right direction. These navigators and signposts must also be fed from within the knowledge structure, as it would be almost impossible to keep them up-to-date using even an army of human 'cybrarians'.
Learning from experience
A year has passed since we received the Information Strategy 'Knowledge Access and Capture' award, and the Lotus customer knowledge base continues to pay major dividends. Today, there are over a thousand current customer success stories in the knowledge base, and the process of collecting and distributing this knowledge has expanded from Europe to Lotus worldwide. Usage of the knowledge base is high with over ten thousand reads and writes per month - a good indicator of healthy knowledge management. Lotus staff now know there is one place to go for customer stories, replacing the previous twenty or more separate sources.
Customer references are the life blood of solution selling. Unfortunately, like blood everyone wants it in a critical situation, but relatively few people want to be donors. The same is true of customer success stories or references. The key challenge in setting up a customer reference knowledge base was not the technology, but getting people to share information willingly. People needed to see what was in it for themselves. Lotus' experiences are summarised below in the form of the main lessons learnt.
1. Get executive sponsorship
The buy-in of senior management was critical. In many cases the only place where the management of the separate groups (who had their own customer reference repository) came together was at regional vice president level. Getting the seal of approval and backing enabled rapid progress.
2. Focus on a specific issue which is easily understood
The knowledge management concept is still not clearly understood by everyone - even within Lotus! To overcome any apprehension we avoided calling the initiative Knowledge Management: access and capture project' . Instead we focused on a specific easily understood business problem faced by everyone in sales and marketing - that of gathering and maintaining customer success stories.
3. Keep it simple - both what you capture and the process involved
Lotus' culture is very consultative. To get things done people need to involve and persuade, rather than dictate. It quickly became clear that there was a core set of information everyone needed. Outside these core items, there was also a huge variety of other requirements. A typical example was 'I need to search for a customer in Denmark running a business application on AS/400 servers with over 3000 clients on OS/2'. The lesson we learnt here was to keep the approach simple. We decided to focus on the minimum amount of information that was useful to everyone. This has a number of benefits. It is more likely to be kept up-to-date; the less people have to input the better. It also makes the information easier to navigate.
4. Provide incentives
We offered cash prizes for the best references submitted by marketing and sales. This was very useful in the early stages to create a focus. Another factor here was to devolve responsibility to the countries for devising the best incentive for their country. A pan-European incentive probably would not have worked.
5. Evangelise - internal marketing and education
We were fortunate enough to have a strong personality who evangelised the reference program throughout Europe. Strong internal marketing (e.g. regular reports to senior management, success stories about the project etc.) was critical to success.
6. Appoint champions - assign and devolve responsibility
The process of capturing, maintaining and updating customer references had to be devolved as close to their source as possible, particularly in Europe where many different languages are spoken. Therefore 'reference champions' were appointed in each of the major countries with responsibility to meet reference quotas. These people were usually in the marketing department. Without ownership, the process would have ground to a halt or reverted back to the separate systems we had before.
7. Provide a compelling design
It was essential to integrate the information systems (IS) development team with the marketing/sales business sponsors at an early stage. Without quick turnaround from IS, their commitment to producing a compelling user experience within the project would not have been as successful. Fortunately, Lotus Notes and Domino provide an ideal environment to create excellent applications.
We are now looking at a number of enhancements for the system including:
|extending the process to our business partners through our web site|
|capturing sales-loss information as well as success stories - sometimes you can learn more from failure than success|
From our practical experience we have found that for a knowledge management architecture to be successful, it must not only handle stored explicit knowledge; it must also lay a clear path to unlocking tacit knowledge. Well constructed architecture also needs to provide the means for the integration and transformation of different types of knowledge. At the same time a culture should be established that encourages the sharing of information, as demonstrated in the highly successful marketing knowledge base used within Lotus. Finally, the technology must be good enough to underpin the collection, analysis and communication of all types of knowledge. Our efficient customer reference knowledge base is built on these principles and continues to grow in content, participation and value.
Gavin Lennox, is Industry Director of Sales and Ian McNairn is Industry Director of Knowledge Management at Lotus Development Corporation. They can be contacted at: