posted 30 Sep 2000 in Volume 4 Issue 2
Plight of the navigator
The distingiushing characteristics of corporate intranet systems and enterprise information portals are becoming increasingly blurred. Geoff Smith examines the differences, and addresses the dilemma facing companies attempting to decide which approach to adopt for their knowledge management initiative.
If your organisation is still struggling to make a success of its intranet, you may be feeling a little aggrieved that the focus now seems to have moved on yet again – to portals. But has anything really changed? Do you need to start all over again? Or is some judicious re-branding of your intranet as an enterprise information portal, or corporate portal, all that is necessary? I believe that intranets and portals are essentially at two ends of the same technology spectrum; the naming is not as important as an appreciation of the underlying issues being addressed. There are options available for tackling these concerns – whether by enhancing your intranet or through moving to a new portal-based access layer. I believe the process of analysing these choices will help to make the value-adding role of knowledge management clearer.
Some things never change
Before looking at the technology, we have to remind ourselves why portals and intranets have become so important. In a deceptively simple insight, Tom Davenport points out that whilst the availability of information, processing power and bandwidth continues to grow exponentially every year, the other half of the interface has not changed significantly in several millennia; the ability of humans to absorb all this material remains constant.
Certainly the improvements in user interfaces over the past few years have helped, but the point was reached some time ago where the amount of digital information available became greater than any individual’s requirements. The problem then became how to match the information individuals need to do their job, to what is available. Note the choice of words, for there are two possible responses: We can let the individual choose what they need – by drilling down, or by searching – or we can have the system profile user needs and proactively deliver content to them. The distinction is sometimes memorably characterised as letting the user find the content, versus letting the content find its users.
In effect, the classic intranet presents the ‘drill down’ option. All other things being equal, a successful intranet is one that presents a well thought-out navigational hierarchy, surmounted by some ‘must have’ information at the home page level. The rule of thumb is no more than three clicks to get to what you want. Imaginative use of ‘tabs’ versus conventional menus provides a balance between immediate, intuitive context setting and dealing with the detail. In fact, as far as the ‘user experience’ is concerned, a well-designed ‘conventional’ intranet can be indistinguishable from a portal.
Too many clicks?
So is careful re-design of the intranet interface all we need to do? Clearly not – or there would not be so many unsuccessful intranet re-launches. The issue is one of divergence and diversity. If the organisation’s information taxonomy is extremely broad, and is matched by an equally broad range of knowledge-based roles, then the limits of the navigation-based approach are reached. There have to be too many options on the home page, too many rungs on the ladder menu. Too little screen real estate and too many clicks. Plus for time-critical roles, can we afford to go in search of what we need? Shouldn’t it be at the top level all the time? Thus arises the concept of the ‘personal home page’, where key information relevant to the individual is always available. Again, it is possible to some extent to do this within the conventional intranet by grouping information to provide generalised role support, but the range of roles that can be represented is necessarily limited – perhaps up to five – and these may actually be at the second level in the hierarchy.
It is at this point that the portal concept starts to take precedence. The range of information sources and the granularity of potential audiences has become unmanageable for the poor webmaster, who has now become a key bottleneck in the process. Essentially, a portal tool offers three key components: A method of modularising content delivery; a way of classifying audiences; and an interface that connects the two. The many different portal products on the market today differ in the balance between these components. If they come from a content or document management background, handling of content will be the key differentiator. For those products with origins in network control, management of corporate access will be superior. And for those from a systems integration background, the slickness of user interface will be uppermost on the shopping list. The choice needs to be made in terms of volatility and richness of content, changeability of audience requirements, flexibility of the interface, and the ease with which non-technical users can change it.
Choice versus coherence
It might seem that the portal has all the advantages in the complex corporate environment, but its very flexibility means new issues are introduced. The advantage of the intranet, particularly if we make the home page the mandatory log-on point, is that we have a single point of contact everyone in the organisation gets to see, hopefully every day. So, if the CEO has an important announcement, or there is a significant news story about the company, or a major policy change, then no-one has any excuse for not knowing about it. The concept of coherence is important: Without a common communication channel the rate of organisational change can slow down dramatically – which is hardly the desired effect in the e-business age.
What is needed is a balance between choice and coherence. There has to be some information that everyone gets, and cannot ‘switch-off’. Even a portal needs a mandatory home page. Coupled with user-friendly content personalisation options (backed by transparent access control in the background) we can sustain a sense of ‘one company’ whilst at the same time delivering mass customisation. And the act of personalising actually creates another information asset – the personal profile that we can now use to identify content that our users might find useful. This opens the possibility of pro-active delivery, which is a response to another point touched on earlier. Do we expect the user to find the time to discover the information they need? Wouldn’t it be better to anticipate and find it out for them? More importantly, this provides an effective response to the open-ended nature of the information world – we cannot drill down to, or request a search for, those things that we don’t know exist. Whereas a series of friendly web-crawlers can do the job uncomplainingly for you night after night.
Me, myself and I
Put simply, the challenge with portals and intranets is to match the system to the way people work – if it doesn’t, they will opt out. This is the key difference between knowledge systems and other business systems; their use is in many respects ‘optional’. Firms hire smart people who are extremely adaptable and resourceful: They want to use these skills to apply this information effectively to better sell or deliver services or products to clients. If the system does not provide the right information at the right time, these smart people – who are also generally pretty impatient – will use these same skills to dig out what they need in other ways. And here we see the downfall of many failed intranet and portal implementations. So what is it that knowledge workers actually want and need? At Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, we have found that putting the knowledge professional at the centre of the information world gives a comprehensive, powerful and very relevant model (see figure 1).
The model shows a concept of knowledge and content that goes beyond just the core work requirements into the broader career and personal issues, reflecting the reality of today’s workplace. We have classified these areas into three broad categories: Personal, professional and process. Behind each is a different class of content and applications, with very different volatility, content management and presentation requirements.
The personal aspects relate to me as an individual and employee. The most basic administration – ‘how things get done around here’ – plus stuff that relates to the social context in which I work. Hopefully, as individuals we don’t have to spend more than five per cent of our time dealing with this. The Professional aspects are about me, my immediate peers and the extended knowledge community that I am part of. They are the manifestation to the individual of the learning organisation. We might spend 10-15 per cent of our time in this area. The process view is about working with my immediate colleagues – whether a sales unit or a project team – in direct revenue-earning or customer-facing activity. It is the ‘day job’ that I am primarily paid to do, and do well, for 80-85 per cent of the time.
The make-up of these groupings – which will often form ‘tabs’ in the typical portal implementation, is examined later. Exactly the same structures can be applied to an intranet, if the range of content and audiences will fit.
The personal touch
With companies engaged in ‘talent wars’ there is an expectation of personal support and lifestyle balance in order to retain and get the most out of people in doing the ‘day job’. If firms are prepared to provide at-desk massage for tense bodies, then a little relief for stressed-out minds seems reasonable. Easing things like travel booking or expense payments all contribute to lightening the burden, as does support of outside interests.
Here we enter the space known as ‘workforce optimisation’, which supports business value creation. Although not directly knowledge management, it provides a key foundation for KM in terms of participation, best practice and establishment of trust in the online environment – plus some important enablers for communities such as reliable directory services. Do we need a portal to deliver this? It can certainly make it easier, but this type of content has been the bread-and-butter of well-run intranets for years. The trick is to manage the content, and technology can only go so far. There has to be business buy-in and ownership of the process. If a departmental head doesn’t see the benefit of explaining what their function does via the intranet, then they are unlikely to do a good job of maintaining the content. And, if someone else does it for them, typically a well-intentioned webmaster, then the content will inevitably be off-target. This is the reason that it is important to get this basic stuff right first. It introduces the right web-centric culture, and an appreciation of the new management issues it raises. Implementation of an advanced knowledge portal is unlikely to be a success when you can’t keep the telephone directory up to date!
Professional through and through
The next area to be represented is about creating tomorrow’s value, whether for the individual or the firm. It is about enhancing my expertise and contributing to the growth of others, whether through online learning or the tacit knowledge exchanges managed through coaching or mentoring. Fundamentally, from the individual’s point of view, it is about advancing their career. It is also about the community that fosters creation and development of new ideas for products and services, or improved methods. This community has two levels of relevance to the individual: Those peers whose knowledge domains are closely aligned (which may or may not include those who one directly works with) versus the ‘extended’ community offering support in the wider (but related) knowledge domain. One needs to be connected to both – the former for support of current needs, and the latter to allow growth and exploration on new areas.
It is in this area that we see the true knowledge processes and applications starting to appear – it is about creating and maintaining relationships as much as content. This is the classic territory of communities of interest or experts, where electronic support can be invaluable in pulling the community together and enabling efficient discussion and sharing of documents. Want to know how they work? Try accessing the smoker’s room or the coffee area nearest to you...
What about the workers?
Finally, we come to the area that might be regarded as the most important in day-to-day business terms – creating today’s value. Important, but necessarily building on the other two layers. The process area is about how people work. It is the mechanism for putting the knowledge and information they need at their fingertips, whether from documents, web pages or links to business applications.
Here we have the key information structured around the way I work:
- Work flows
- Current tasks or projects
- Project team shared work areas
- Current methods, standards, templates
- Collaboration and communication areas
- Client/competitor news
- Market Intelligence
- Business applications
- Decision support
Again, this does not necessarily imply the need for a portal product. It is possible to structure an intranet around a simple process flow, with drill-down at each step, presenting the knowledge and information I need at that step. Equally, it is possible to implement workflow systems of varying degrees of complexity, which might themselves link into business applications such as ERP systems or business intelligence applications. However, the more complex and diverse the range of knowledge roles and information sources, the more the balance tilts in favour of the portal, particularly if the sources extend outside the organisation in the form of extranet or Internet links.
A key aspect of this is the need to balance both hard and soft information. Real-world business decisions are made on the basis of a complex mix of structured data (numbers, explicit information) and unstructured data (words, tacit knowledge). One way in which the portal approach is superior is its ability to easily mix these two types and juxtapose them seamlessly. As well as telling the decision-maker what is happening, it can also tell them something about why. Such portals are necessarily tightly integrated into information sources and business applications, and may differ dramatically from one role to another. Secure access is also an issue, since information presented may be highly sensitive. More importantly, the issues of change management and business process transformation are critical.
Cap Gemini Ernst & Young’s approach to these highly specialised needs, particularly for senior business decision makers and key knowledge professionals, has been to start from the requirements of these key individuals, and build the portal environment to suit the role, top-down. In our experience, the best way to satisfy these most demanding specialist audiences is to use best-of-breed components and exemplar templates to illustrate how this new way of working would look and feel. For a corporate audience, the enterprise information portal product is more suitable. Many different flavours are available to suit various platforms and to match content management requirements in a ‘bottom-up’ approach.
Where does KM fit in?
For the foreseeable future, the intranet and portal paradigms will continue to co-exist. But the range of information sources is vast and growing, and so are the range of technology options. As bandwidth increases, this diversity is set to continue to grow, and the distinctions between intranet, extranet, Internet – and by extension the portal or content management system that ties them all together – will disappear. So does this leave a role for KM?
What we are left with is the key issue of how to extract business value from knowledge. I believe this will bring the role of KM into sharper focus. However, much of this is still subject to the psychology of the optional – technology only takes away some of the pain. We still need to understand how to motivate, recognise and reward good knowledge practices. It is also clear that the identification and encouragement of communities is a key enabler, which is a challenge in its own right. We also have to ensure that business leaders at every level see content as something they must own to ensure its continuing quality, value, relevance and usefulness. And none of this is possible without a clear understanding of the relationship of knowledge to bottom-line business goals, and the return on investment. All of which are key issues that KM has been striving to provide the answers to for several years. The difference now is that we understand the questions better.
© Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, 2000
Geoff Smith is European head of Knowledge & Content Management Services at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. He can be contacted at: email@example.com