posted 1 Sep 1998 in Volume 2 Issue 1
The Internet Connection
Creating knowledge workers
While the debate over the extent to which Internet technology will prove to be an effective conduit for KM continues, Siemens Nixdorf believe they have found the perfect application. European Information Manager Anne Jubert believes that effective Information Management may be the key to successful Knowledge Management.
The potential of online technologies to revolutionise Knowledge Management has provoked heated debate - not to say excitement - across the profession. Of course, the Internet is not the first technology to be heralded as the answer to all information problems, and it will not be the last. However, some years into the Internet phenomenon, there is still a lingering belief in the power of online technology to answer all knowledge requirements. The underlying premise seems to be that online access to the Internet - or more recently intranets - is all that is needed for users to partake in the unquestioned benefits of this seemingly boundless font of 'knowledge'.
In contrast to the projections and promises, the reality seems to be - as ever - one of great but still under-utilised technology looking for a substantial application. Whilst the number of businesses getting connected grows at an ever increasing rate, there is still a lack of real Knowledge Management success stories. In many cases the major corporates are harnessing the unquestionable power of online technology to make no more than piecemeal changes to internal information management structures.
Some companies are, however, finding the online applications that count. Having developed and deployed a pioneering intranet-based information and communication service, Siemens Nixdorf (SNI) has proved that knowledge can be effectively managed online.
Called NewsBoard, the system has made the 'electronic desktop' a reality for Siemens Nixdorf employees. From a single entry point and, crucially, in one seamless search, users have access to a fully integrated set of internal and external knowledge sources strategically important information from online news providers, databases, WWW, email, discussion forums and groupware.
More advanced users can even set up personal alerts and customise their own business 'newspaper'. And the cost of this system? Anne Jubert, European Information Manager at SNI, reckons that ongoing costs work out to a similar amount per capita as subscription to a traditional business periodical.
If such a system can be built with these comparatively modest overheads, why are so few companies getting it right? According to Ms Jubert, lack of - or misplaced - focus is the fundamental reason for the dearth of successful online knowledge management implementations:
"What we're still seeing is a situation where so-called 'Knowledge Management' projects are built around doing something with the 'nuts and bolts' of the technology. In many cases a project will be the sole remit of the IT department - because it's mistakenly viewed as a 'techie' activity - which will be expected to develop a system in total isolation. Even where there is an information specialist on board, projects will be undertaken without prior analysis of the business rationale and - possibly more crucial - without time being invested in getting to grips with what end-users will actually be expected to do with the system.'
"The end result is an information system, yes, but one that will still fall into the trap of providing either too little or too much redundant information. A true Knowledge Management system provides users with the complete overview of their fields of interest, no more, no less - however much that field develops."
The information flows
The commercial catalyst for development of NewsBoard was essentially a shift in Siemens Nixdorf's overall corporate focus. Jubert took on the role of European Information Manager in 1996, just at the point when SNI was moving away from a product and technology towards a 'systems', or business-oriented focus. All customer-facing staff were being asked to act as consultants, actively tendering advice and developing proposals based on intimate knowledge of the customer's marketplace. In short, they were to become 'knowledge workers' - a change that individual workers could not easily encompass without assistance on a formalised, managed level from SNI.
What could have been a massive undertaking was ameliorated by one factor - technology was never an issue, because SNI was further advanced than most in having already implemented a corporate-wide intranet infrastructure on which the proposed Knowledge Management solution could be built.
Beyond their infrastructural responsibilities, Jubert and her 'virtual' team based in Paris and Munich were - and remain - convinced that a Knowledge Management system could not be left in the keep of the IT department - even that of a leading technology provider.
Content is King
The Knowledge Assets
Creating knowledge workers
"Our first task was to define what we understood as knowledge.
Knowledge to us was the accumulation of interpreted information, skills,
experience, value judgements and social networks. Whilst not being the same
thing at all, effective Information Management is the linchpin of successful
Knowledge Management. And by information we were clear we were actually talking
"In terms of content, we knew we could get all the raw information we needed from virtually anywhere - but wading through lots of useless information would only add to users' workload, without enhancing their consultancy capability. Managing the content effectively would be the difference between failure and success."
Knowledge is based on interpreted information, skills, experience, value judgements and personal networks, so it isn't difficult to equate effective Information Management with successful Knowledge Management: Newsboard, an information management tool, is therefore a critical part of global KM systems within Siemens Nixdorf. The collaborative tools which prove so fertile for organisational KM - internal knowledge bases, discussion forums, newsgroups - are all to be found on Newsboard.
Knowledge creation, capture and modelling are being carried out by subject experts working on a cross-section of projects, to be integrated into the different corporate knowledgebases (these are then indexed for general access through Newsboard). At the divisional level local knowledge brokers facilitate the knowledge capture and transfer, while the global co-ordination of the corporate KM structure is the responsibility of the CKO, Dr Ludwig Zink, and the core Knowledge Management team of six.
The NewsBoard Structure
How it works
Users accessing the NewsBoard system are categorised according to the service level they are deemed to require. Jubert contends that demarcation is essential.
"The aim isn't to create some kind of knowledge hierarchy. Offering different service levels ensures that users can happily access as much information they require in a controlled manner, without overload or placing undue strain on the system and its support teams.'
Precisely what information users see is largely determined according to standard 'profiles'.
"Profiles are fundamental to our vision of what this service should provide.'
"We have designed a set of profiles that respond to users' requirement for information but without overload. The profiles allow the varying interests and responsibilities across the company - and its focus on the financial marketplace - to be addressed whilst allowing for central monitoring and control of the overall service.'
"The beauty of the profile design is that they are constructed around a generic core that allows for endless re-use as the basis for any future information service. All that is needed is the addition of the requisite market expertise. Looking longer term, as Siemens Nixdorf rolls-out this system across the corporation, the inherent re-usability of the profiles will be of immense value in speeding the implementation process."
Users in all categories have easy access to a range of generic information - for example, newswires from ClariNews - and an aggregation of realtime news from Reuters, AFP, UPI, Business Wire, PR Newswire updating every ten minutes and delivering about 3,500 stories each day. Where appropriate they also have a direct route to professional staff who will assist with complex research requirements and supply analytical expertise.
Level One forms the majority group of NewsBoard users. They have free access to international newswires and online databases from the desktop via an easy to use Intranet browser-based interface. In addition they can search for news and information about market segments, new technologies, customers, competitors, partners and internal news.
NewsBoard's Level Two service can be compared to a 'personal business magazine'. In contrast to a traditional business periodical, however, the service provides added-value benefits that come from a focus that is solely on the business needs of the individual user. Unlike even the best magazines - electronic publications included - NewsBoard provides information that is, literally, up-to-date and in an electronic format, delivered straight to the desktop and which can be processed and put to work on the user's behalf straight away.
Up at Level Three, NewsBoard becomes a personalised service serving the heavy-duty needs of individuals or to support individual projects. 'Power' users in this category would be expected to access his/her customised NewsBoard page at least once a day and make frequent use of the email-based 'personal alert' function. This is very much a personalised service, down to individually specified interfaces.
Serving user communities
From Level Two onwards, NewsBoard is largely defined according to the needs of 'Communities' or, in Level Three, individuals.
"The concept of community is one of the main building blocks on which the NewsBoard service has been developed," explained Jubert. "Each 'Community of Practice', which can be anything from a line of business, project team or unit, would subscribe to an individualised permanent service which means they receive exactly the type of information they require. The community would designate an individual member as the community 'user' who would be assisted by skilled staff in setting up profiles and filters and generally in managing the effective development of the service. Communities and individuals can take up the option of using tools supplied to set up their own profiles and filters."
NewsBoard has been available to all SNI intranet users since early 1998 and has been received with approval. In fact, it's made quite a splash. All signs point to NewsBoard becoming a mainstay of SNI's global Knowledge Management structure. There are also serious discussions underway which could result in the NewsBoard system being used as the corporate template for Knowledge Management provision across Siemens Nixdorf worldwide - ultimately making the service available to over 35,000 people globally
Retaining a tight-knit management team predominantly composed of knowledge professionals, backed by its partners, is a key element in this 'nurturing' development process. Despite her global ambitions for the project, Jubert believes that this selective approach will remain, no matter how far the service extends.
"Our approach to Knowledge Management is not about reproducing an old-fashioned centralised resource, nor is it concerned with creating a knowledge bureaucracy. Our focus is on bringing sifted information and other online resources through to the desktop as 'knowledge' that is of immediate value to users."
Anne Jubert is European Information Manager at Siemens Nixdorf.