posted 16 Apr 2002 in Volume 5 Issue 7
Information on the move
Providing employees with mobile content
Information portals are centralising, streamlining and structuring corporate information for forward-thinking companies. The next step is to extend this exchange of information and communication to incorporate the growing number of employees who now work from home. Christoph Michel discusses the opportunities soon to be available to teleworkers.
The traditional office is in decline. The number of mobile employees is rising and flexible work models and the internet have pushed this trend. With the decentralisation of organisations and the demands for providing employees with information on the rise, web content management systems, and the information portals built upon them, play a key role in this context. Essentially, they combine insiders and outsiders under a single virtual roof.
Teleworking – the ability to work from any location outside of the office – has evolved greatly in recent years, so much so that employees have created functional, operational work places within their own homes. Companies that offer such flexible working models are highly attractive to employees and potential employers find themselves at an advantage when approaching new recruits. In fact, a study sponsored by Telecommute America, a non-profit organisation, indicated that it would be hard to make most teleworkers return to a ‘regular’ business life, even by doubling their salaries.
Undoubtedly, lower office rentals, savings on travel expenses and the higher productivity of teleworkers are great prospects for any company. However, the increase in home offices has highlighted the importance of an efficient information and knowledge management approach.
With the advent of information portals, it is now possible to make corporate knowledge centrally accessible to employees distributed far and wide wherever nternet access is available. Recent developments in mobile technology have further increased mobility in content and information management. In the past, low mobile radio bandwidth and the complexity of converting data have hindered the way in which corporate information is relayed to and displayed on wap-enabled mobile phones. The arrival of GPRS technology has stimulated great leaps forward in mobile information delivery, with data transfer at virtually ISDN speed. The arrival of this technology has made it possible for employees to have truly mobile access to corporate information wherever they are.
For Hyperwave, the challenge in creating a mobile knowledge management environment has been twofold. First, as far as communication via a mobile phone is concerned, the limited presentation ability of wap-enabled phones has meant the content and layout of documents need to be amended depending on how they will be viewed. Web-based knowledge management systems that are built entirely on internet standards transmit information automatically in wap format, which is displayed only in text format on the mobile phone. This has meant developing a knowledge resource that works equally well on a mobile phone as it does on a PC.
The solution has been to create specialised ‘wap tracks’, special content sources that are optimised for wap-compliant devices. These tracks divide intranet content into such categories as personal documents, e-mails, addresses, current enterprise news or useful bookmarks for sources on the internet. For example, using a ‘people finder’ track enables users to retrieve addresses from colleagues and partners and the phone number dialled directly from the wap browser.
The second challenge has been to ensure that the knowledge management environment delivers the same value both within and outside the office. Key features that must be incorporated within a knowledge management system to make this possible include current content, powerful search capabilities and user-specific breakdown of content into relevant and irrelevant areas.
Of crucial importance to this is hyperlink management. Hyperlinks play a major role in the efficient transfer of data. They link relevant documents and update teleworkers on the latest information. However, problems can occur when documents are removed, renamed or deleted on the intranet. This problem is overcome by using dynamic links. When documents are added to the knowledge management system, these links are stored separately as objects in a database and adapt automatically when documents are added, amended or removed, thus eliminating dead links. By preserving these links in this way, it is possible to ensure that users gain access only to information that is relevant to their requirements, both in terms of content and timeliness.
One of the chief criticisms of teleworking is that knowledge in the minds of employees is spread over a number of locations and is hard to access or share. Current knowledge and corporate information is exchanged freely around a company via impromptu chats in corridors, kitchens or communal areas. To keep teleworkers from being excluded from such information, the portal has to assume the role of information provider.
To prevent a knowledge gap developing between teleworkers and their fellow colleagues in the office, the ability of the information portal to provide a forum for communication is of paramount importance. This requires employees being kept up to date on new documents of interest to them, as well as developments to working documents or projects, particularly where they are working as part of a team. It is also important for external employees to be able to publish information and content on the intranet to make it immediately available to their colleagues. Version control guarantees smooth and transparent workflow and the security levels such as ‘read’ and ‘write’ also protect the intranet from wild growth.
To make sure communication and the exchange of information is maintained across the entire workforce, an information portal should also include different tools for setting up social structures. Discussion forums are an ideal means of achieving this, allowing members of a project team to meet and work together on stored documents. Online chats can help to establish direct contacts with colleagues.
Teleworkers and mobile workers are changing corporate cultures. Information portals serve as a central tool for the exchange of information and facilitate communication between internal and external employees. In this way, the disparate resources are consolidated under one collective roof to ensure that workers can be equally as productive outside of the office as they can within it.
Christoph Michel is CEO at Hyperwave. He can be contacted via: firstname.lastname@example.org