posted 1 Apr 2000 in Volume 3 Issue 7
Intellectual ergonomics: an intranet
Intranet, Portal, Dashboard, Scorecard. What processes connect these tools to knowledge? Why are Application Service Providers, or ASPs, the next big thing for KM? Alden Globe shares his personal journal of intranet knowledge management, and describes practical methods to ensure winning projects.
It is likely that concepts we share today, such as ‘power transmission’ or ‘jet engine’ would not have been comprehensible to citizens of ancient Athens. In the same vein, ‘wheelwright’, ‘leeching’ and ‘horse-less carriage’ have little meaning today. One explanation for this simple observation is that each generation through history shares a ‘transcendental event horizon’, a collective understanding that explains that those people, at that time, grasp ideas relevant to their world.
I began to comprehend computers, desktop publishing and multimedia in 1990, as I struggled to write screenplays in Steamboat Springs, a popular ski resort in Northwest Colorado. I was intrigued with the idea of using technology to be both writer and producer of an interactive film or game. [JUMP CUT: Two feature-length action film scripts, Johnny Shredds, and Jack Wizard languishing in drawer at author’s side. FADE TO: Fingers typing on keyboard.]
With interactive challenges fresh on my mind in 1994, I began with Steamboat Magazine as an assistant editor, charged with getting the magazine on to the Internet. I learned HTML from a book and used an old Mac to ftp hand-coded pages over a 14.4 modem up to a rented server. Cheap, crude, fast, practical... and effective. The first story I put on our new magazine website was an article I’d written about telecommuters arriving across Colorado:
“By the winter of 1894, the outlaw West of Butch Cassidy and Billy the Kid was gone... Ranchers and cowboys worked the land, farming and raising livestock. The law was a badge and whiskey the drink of choice... Grazing lands were fenced with barbed wires, each style named for its maker: Brinkerhoff, Glidden, Ellwood, Scutts.
In the winter of 1994, a century later, another breed of adventurer has arrived in Steamboat Springs. But these settlers are homesteading an untamed electronic frontier. They do not work the land. The law is an encryption chip and caffeine the drink of choice. Steamboat’s new pioneers work hard and reap a harvest of the imagination, transmitting data over the new wire that fences the west: Copper, fiber and coaxial.”
(“The Wires That Fence the West; Riding the Range on the Infobahn”, Steamboat Magazine, Winter/Spring1995. Used with permission.)
Building one of the first regional magazine websites in the world taught me about online community building, marketing, local politics, e-writing style, graphics, content management, publishing software and outsourcing. It was exciting when the emails came in from skiers around the world. They sought advice, lodging, equipment tips, jobs, bargains, and old friends. I began to grasp the power inherent in connecting people with information, resources and like-minded individuals.
By 1995 I wanted to take these concepts further. I joined J.D. Edwards Worldwide Solutions, a global ERP software company based in Denver, where I was drafted for an intranet experiment we named the Knowledge GardenTM. Due to rapid growth, J.D. Edwards was facing the challenge of distributing increasing amounts of information to its global workforce. The company needed to filter timely, relevant information to every employee. The task of getting and staying up to speed was difficult. Hard-copy manuals and newsletters quickly fell out of date, and were expensive to distribute to all who needed them worldwide.
Rather than build an exhaustive document repository, we chose to profile people and elicit the small bits of information they truly need to do a job – their job – and drive revenue. We interviewed members of the sales force, finding out what they needed to know. What do they read? What do they bring to client meetings? How do they get product news? How do they keep pace with the competition? Who do they call when they need answers to questions? We focused on efficient use of information. It was an opportunity to come to terms with how an individual maintains ‘strategic literacy’ in the face of ‘information smog’.
Many critical Knowledge Garden decisions we made during the 1996-1998 timeframe were based on our understanding of publishing and journalism best practices: The ‘inverted pyramid’ of newspaper writing style, staffing around communications processes (product, sales/marketing, employee); building and staffing an editorial infrastructure, enterprise taxonomy and personalisation features.
The team that built Knowledge Garden was not made up from traditional technologists. Kathleen Murphy, an editor at then Web Week (now Internet World) caught the spirit and explained the effort in December 1997:
“The brains behind the intranet initiative hold advanced degrees in philosophy, English literature, and law, not C++ or Java. And when others in the company’s Denver headquarters might be talking about predictions of the next snowfall, the intranet team is swapping e-mail in which they summarise books on the economics of information, on creating environments for learning, and on developing products quickly for the compressed schedules of the Internet era... The intranet team studied the pathways to information during all phases of customer interaction, and has now structured access to content on the internal web not only in a hierarchical fashion by department, but also according to the just-in-time sales cycle. Team members found, for example, that it’s uncommon for employees to search for information based on who produced it.“
(“Designing an Intranet 101”, Web Week, Dec 1997, www.internetworld.com/print/1997/12/01/intranet/19971201-designing.html)
Basically, we sought to understand ‘information cycles’ critical to driving revenue. What people are involved? Then we focused on organising information around the cycles, abandoning corporate hierarchy and org charts, and creating a ‘Knowledge Storyboard’.
The process is explained in detail in Managing Knowledge, A Practical Web-Based Approach, from Addison Wesley. It was recently documented also in Knowledge Management’s October 1999 issue in: “Leveraging the dimensions of K: Knowledge Engineering for Web Based Knowledge Management” by Mark Hammersley, illustrating a knowledge storyboard used in a structural analysis process at Rolls Royce.
I’ve visited companies in the US where web-enthusiasts and IT specialists have built large numbers of internal websites. Alternatively, a merger or acquisition scenario required linking complex information resources together. In many of these cases, there’s no overarching intranet vision, taxonomy, technical, design or navigation standards, and no staff dedicated to content management. The result is not an intranet, but a messy collection of disconnected websites behind a firewall; it’s expensive online information that benefits few, and these systems go largely unused. There seem to be three responses to this situation, after the fact:
Enterprise content management shortcomings, while usually not well understood, are clearly detrimental to the competitive strength of companies afflicted with them. It became apparent in 1999 that good KM practices form an essential foundation for successful e-business initiatives. The ability to communicate and share information effectively with customers, partners and employees is critical to succeed with powerful sales force automation, customer relationship management, online self-help, e-commerce and other solutions.
My co-authors, Wayne Applehans and Greg Laugero, and I have found a five-part approach to intranet strategy development works well as we grapple now with KM in varied information environments:
1. Scenario planning
2. Strategic planning
3. E-business readiness
4. Knowledge audit
5. Information design and branding
In your own intranet efforts, you might begin attempting simple scenario planning to gain an understanding of the potential future operating environment and communications challenges for your organisation (see: The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World by Peter Schwartz). That effort should lead to strategic planning and looking at market drivers, business drivers and related issues (see: Mastering the Digital Marketplace: Practical Strategies for Competitiveness in the New Economy by Douglas F. Aldrich, reviewed in this issue of Knowledge Management – see page 30).
Once these first two higher-level conversations are complete, your team may be better able to examine your organisation’s informational readiness, cultural readiness and technological readiness for meeting the challenge presented by the internet, knowledge management and e-business. Performance of a knowledge audit, an in-depth study of key information cycles, personal profiling and knowledge network-mapping geared to successful intranet deployments. (See: Innovation Strategy for the Knowledge Economy: The Ken Awakening, Business Briefcase Series, by Debra M. Amidon.) Finally, information design and branding work ensures consistent navigation, feature language and presentation of information that maximises the use of appropriate technology and tools. (See: Edward Tufte’s Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative)