posted 18 Mar 2002 in Volume 5 Issue 6
Portals and the knowledge value chain
Combining an off-line approach with web-based knowledge management
Despite the excitement surrounding the evolution of portal technology, even the most advanced application is destined to fail unless the appropriate cultural and behavioural issues are also addressed. Paul Louis Iske explores how a portal can tie in with an organisation’s knowledge value chain and offers some advice about how to strike the right balance in your change management initiative.
Technology has sparked renewed interest and prompted new developments in the area of knowledge management. Internet technology has enabled communication from one to one, many to many, many to one and one to many. Communities now have a wealth of tools at their disposal that allow members to effectively communicate and share information, and a portal can play a crucial role in allowing your intranet to deliver on the areas it is supposed to: personalised information, knowledge retrieval and virtual collaboration.
We all know that knowledge is much more than information: it includes the experience, skills and attitudes of people, placed into a certain context where value can be created. Knowledge management is about connecting people to people and people to content, and the relationships between people, based on the knowledge they want to share and develop, can benefit from a combination of a technical and a more human-focused, anthropological approach. The other key word is ‘context’. Value can only be created in a specific context and it is therefore critical that the various contexts that exist in a business environment are understood if relevant knowledge is to be identified and information overload avoided. As Thijs Boekhoff and I argued in a previous article, without context, knowledge can have no value.
Portals can be seen as the glue that connects various applications and offers users a new experience based on personalisation, advanced search and improved interactivity. Enterprise portals strive to bring all business applications under one umbrella, so that the personalised portal environment becomes the one-stop shopping place for all business-related activities. This includes on-line services in supporting areas like HR and facility management.
It is generally accepted that, in order to add value in a sustainable way, knowledge management should be embedded in the business environment as much as possible. This should be reflected in the three related areas: processes/organisation, culture/mindset and technical infrastructure. This explains why current developments in portal technology offer huge opportunities for knowledge management to truly become part of the business. These beneficial effects will be even more pronounced if the knowledge portal is connected to the user’s working environment via workflow support tools such as CRM systems.
KM tools in a portal environment
This section of the article explores some of the KM tools that can be integrated with a web-based portal environment. The knowledge value chain (KVC), as shown in figure 1, offers a framework by which the value of KM tools can be assessed. The chain covers the following fundamental knowledge processes:
- Knowledge analysis (what do we have to know, what do we know?);
- Knowledge development;
- Knowledge capture;
- Knowledge transfer;
- Knowledge application;
- Knowledge evaluation.
The first part of the KVC is more strategic in nature, whereas the second section has more operational aspects. Various instruments support each process in the chain.
The following specific steps form the KVC:
- KVC1 – developing and sharing mission, vision, strategy;
- KVC2 – analyse knowledge requirements (link with strategy);
- KVC3 – develop, acquire and capture knowledge (building the knowledge capabilities);
- KVC4 – share and distribute knowledge (efficiency, effectiveness);
- KVC5 – apply knowledge (value being realised);
- KVC6 – evaluate knowledge (link with strategy, experience).
In fact, a portal environment offers an architecture under which various applications and sources of internal and external information are brought together. Portals without sufficient functionality and content are like Hollywood pieces of scenery: as you step in, you are immediately outside again.
The knowledge management functionality (KMF) one could expect from a portal includes:
- KMF1 – internal news, internal communications. This content gives contextual information and is directly related to the mission, vision and strategy of the organisation;
- KMF2 – external news. This is often relevant input for various business processes and for contextual awareness;
- KMF3 – on-line community space. Supports communities of interest and communities of practice. Community space usually offer functionalities like news, calendar, who’s who, simple document handling tools, chat environments and discussion forums;
- KMF4 – on-line team room. Focuses on communities of purpose and offers similar functionality as community spaces, but targeted more directly at project management environments;
- KMF5 – on-line collaboration (chat rooms/application sharing/e-mail). These tools are usually combined with or integrated in community and team spaces, and focus on on-line, real-time collaboration and communication;
- KMF6 – expert locator, Yellow Pages (sharing), Q&A system. Q&A systems can be seen as the next generation of Yellow Pages-type systems, as they not only facilitate the identification of experts, but also actively stimulate on-line knowledge sharing based on ‘pull’ concepts;
- KMF7 – library (explicit knowledge base). This can often represent the fundamental element of a good knowledge environment. Focus on procedural and/or repetitive knowledge requirements, so that development and maintenance efforts can be justified;
- KMF8 – profiling (push/pull). Necessary to provide a unique user experience and to avoid information overload. This will help to tailor the portal environment to the individual needs of the user, hence supporting acceptance and integration of the application in existing work processes;
- KMF9 – search. Strong search functionality will help to maximise the benefits obtained from content and to avoid information overload. Furthermore, it will support serendipity by offering a means of connecting people and content that did not previously exist;
- KMF10 – categorisation (knowledge mapping). Helps to structure the content of the knowledge portal and to identify and prioritise the knowledge that is required by users;
- KMF11 – user information. Indispensable for evaluation of content and functionality and to learn about the knowledge-based behaviour and needs of the users;
- KMF12 – on-line learning, e-learning. Container expression, covering most of the functionality listed above. Here we interpret e-learning as a new, possibly extremely efficient, effective and enjoyable way of identifying and satisfying training and development needs. Helps to present training material to the user when and where it is needed.
The off-line effort
The following section will focus on two means of supporting the knowledge value chain: communities (focusing on the tacit, human-based component of knowledge) and content development (codified knowledge). We will then explore the various processes that support the development of an effective on-line community space, before turning to a discussion of the key issues surrounding the management of a portal project.
By definition, communities are people-based. Many organisations think that a network of computers is the same as community. If it is, then it is a very impoverished community indeed. Communities must be based on people who interact in different ways, including via the internet. In a customer and business context, a community must be based on creating a meaningful way of providing a platform in which the transfer of knowledge can result in a ‘corporate brain’ that should be accessible to each member of the organisation. The dynamics of (business) communities are the subject of numerous studies. Occasionally, an overemphasis on the importance of communities leads to an element of ‘tornado chasing’: we look for the high-energy phenomenon, but are quite often left with something that doesn’t fulfil its promise. If communities are to flourish, the presence of the following is essential, though not necessarily sufficient:
- Collective ambition – common challenge, common sense of purpose and a common set of interests;
- Good facilitator(s);
- Relationships of trust and respect, loyalty and friendship, as well as mutual advantage;
- Face-to-face meetings (at launch and afterwards);
- A sense of ownership among the members;
- A (virtual) meeting place;
- The desire to share knowledge and experience;
- Personal accountability and responsibility;
- Recognition – internally and personally.
Projects only succeed if there is an alignment of collective and personal ambitions. Personal ambition and behaviour are to a large extent dependent on the local culture/environment. If one believes in the idea of the knowledge volunteer, it is obvious that people should be motivated on a personal basis. One of the difficulties of a global change programme is that various cultural situations have to be taken into account.
In almost all KM projects, the creation of a so-called knowledge map is one of the most important activities that have to be undertaken. This map has to be developed by analysing the knowledge that supports the workers in the organisation and allows business processes and projects to run efficiently and effectively. The knowledge map is a set of knowledge domains, for each of which the following questions should be asked:
- Is knowledge in the specific area of strategic importance to the business?
- If yes, who has/needs to know what?
- Where is the knowledge and how do we make it available?
To find the answers to these questions, discussion is required with the stakeholders. Experts in each area need to give their input to assess business relevance and to initiate the implementation of the development and governance processes.
After the knowledge map has been constructed, prioritising based on the strategy will be the first step towards actual development and implementation. One could, for instance, implement a governance model in which subject matter experts (knowledge owners) are made responsible for developing, capturing and maintaining the knowledge/information. This work has to be integrated into their employee objectives, and should be appraised and rewarded as such. Of course, there is also a collective responsibility to increase the quality of content. Feedback from users that links into business processes – after action reviews, for example – should support the knowledge owner by including suggestions for improvement and extension of the knowledge domain they are responsible for. The governance model should also seek to prevent the knowledge database turning into a ‘databasement’, an environment where people dump information without checking its relevance and without providing regular maintenance.
Combined people-based and content-based KM environments
In an on-line community environment, people create valuable content by aggregating knowledge. Furthermore, by capturing, recording, analysing and interpreting both the behaviour and the knowledge exchanged, value is created.
The development and implementation of a portal architecture is a complex process. Due attention should be paid to all the factors that relate to change management.
IT is only one part of the project. Tools have to be selected and/or developed that work seamlessly together and must be integrated with the overall IT architecture and infrastructure of the organisation. Quite often, this also requires the enhancement of the existing infrastructure and the development of a support team to deal with infrastructure issues, including connectivity and authorisation.
Then, as argued above, the right processes also need to be in place. From knowledge mapping to a consistent approach for facilitating and supporting communities: all of the knowledge management processes need to be clear and accepted if they are to be reflected in the portal architecture.
Finally, and probably most important, attention needs to be paid to the culture that exists within the organisation. Typically, by introducing a new business tool like a portal, changes in work processes are anticipated or required. The more one can integrate the on-line environment into the company’s natural way of working, the higher the probability that the project will be successful. It is therefore essential that a thorough study of the implementation environment and the anticipated users is made.
Based on these arguments it is clear that the development and implementation of a knowledge-focused portal is a business project rather than just an IT project. If the project is to be effectively managed, the right balance between the hard and soft issues needs to be struck, and communication and change management skills must be effectively utilised if the portal is to truly add value to the organisation.
Portals can offer huge opportunities for creating value by developing, sharing and applying knowledge. Portals can offer a technical environment that supports the various steps in the knowledge value chain, while user experience is stimulated via personalisation and search tools.
Though the identification, selection and implementation of the right tools and the development of the appropriate architecture and infrastructure is a technical exercise, the real challenge is found in the development of the right processes, organisation and culture. A portal project should focus on the personal and collective objectives of the users. Real understanding of the business, the processes and, in particular, the members of the organisation, will guide the developers in understanding where and how knowledge can add value and what contribution the knowledge portal environment can make. The paradigm should no longer be, ‘if we build it they will use it’, but instead, ‘if they use it, it will build itself’.
Paul Louis Iske is senior vice president and chief knowledge officer at ABN AMRO Corporate Finance. He is also a freelance consultant on strategic knowledge management issues. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
1. Iske, P.L. & Boekhoff, M., ‘The value of knowledge doesn’t exist: A framework for valuing the potential of knowledge’ in Knowledge Management (Vol. 5 Iss. 2, Ark Group, October 2001)
2. Weggeman, M.C.D.P., Kennismanagement (1997)
A note on communities
Communities are regarded as one of the key concepts in knowledge management. Since knowledge can hardly be separated from its main carrier – the human being – the best environment for developing, capturing, sharing and applying knowledge is one in which people talk and work together. In a community environment, the context for knowledge often becomes clear, and a natural way for working with knowledge is uncovered. Typically, communities can be broken down into four separate categories:
- Informal networks – networks of people who know each other and communicate with each other outside the context of directly shared (business-oriented) goals and/or interests;
- Communities of interest – good examples are discussion groups and chat-rooms. Here people are joined together by a common interest;
- Communities of practice – here people actually share knowledge. This exchange of experiences and ideas allows workers to do their jobs better and more efficiently. A network organisation is a good example of a group that might turn into a community of practice;
- Communities of purpose – here goals and targets can be set at which professionals can collectively aim. Collaboration between members is essential to achieving the desired results. The group is collectively responsible for generation of business benefits. A project team is a good example of a community of purpose.