posted 1 May 2000 in Volume 3 Issue 8
WEB ONLY ARTICLE: The
Many organisations have developed intranets and have understood the potential that this technology has in supporting the aims of KM, but few have achieved what they hoped for in knowledge management. Robert Taylor describes a new vision for a knowledge-enabled intranet, and outlines how this can be achieved, paying particular attention to the concept of developing 'knowledge content artefacts'.
Whither the intranet?
Most major organisations today have an intranet - or, more likely, several intranets - of one sort or another. In many cases the technology is delivering significant business benefits. More often, though, the corporate intranet is still looking to fulfil a 'business critical' role and has yet to deliver on the promise of knowledge management. The big issue now is how to turn the intranet into the tool that it has the potential to be. For many, the next step has more to do with 'knowledge-enablement' than technology.
Intranets have often started as the local initiative of a single enthusiast - or, possibly, several such enthusiasts working separately in various parts of the organisation. The quality varies greatly and they tend to contain a limited amount of static information only. The successful ones may gain attention, begin to carry a wider range of more focussed information and be used by a growing audience.
The first corporate intranet is often a network of the existing local intranets, so that users of a departmental or national intranet can then see the information available on the others. At this stage there are often questions raised about what information should be available, bringing in some defined standards for content; for example, a web page for every department, sourcing of external newsfeeds, and so on.
The most advanced intranets in general usage today usually also provide some level of paperless administration functionality, such as online, 'self-service' personnel records updating, expenses submission, stationery ordering and the like. These initiatives build on the network provided and exploit the ease of distributed access and development that the intranet provides. The benefits achievable can be very impressive with major organisations saving many millions of pounds in internal costs.
However beneficial they may be, though, the majority of even the most advanced intranets are essentially becoming administrative tools rather than strategic business initiatives. If the intranet is to reach its potential, if it is to become a business-critical tool, then it will have to play a full role in supporting the creation, sharing and application of the knowledge that is the core, value-creating competence of the organisation. This is what we mean by becoming knowledge enabled.
The knowledge-enabled intranet
In short, the knowledge-enabled intranet is an intranet:
Intranets that provide read-only access to static information hardly fulfil these criteria. Those that provide paperless administration functionality go further, but despite the substantial benefits they may provide at an operational level they are still not fully knowledge-enabled.
The fully knowledge-enabled intranet goes further than both of these in terms of the role it plays in fulfilling corporate strategy, in supporting business processes and knowledge work, and in developing the organisation's intellectual capital. It:
- Is a focus for the creation, capture, sharing, application and
exploitation of the organisation's differential knowledge, experience and
- Supports and promotes efficiency, effectiveness and competitive edge
through close integration with the core, knowledge-based processes and
activities of the organisation
- Is where people easily find the help they need; other people, applications
or documents; internal or external
- Is where people communicate and collaborate, real-time or off-line,
'anytime, anyplace, anywhere'
- Automates intelligent, decision-making tasks and workflows.
The fully knowledge-enabled intranet is a qualitatively different kind of intranet - but it is the kind of intranet that organisations will need in order to address the issues of knowledge management.
All intranet knowledge-enablement initiatives need to succeed on three levels, not just in a purely technological sense. They need to:
- Be technically good in themselves and well-delivered - which means
that both the service level, the applications, the core content itself and
the design must be right. This is equivalent to 'working' in a technical
- Be relevant to and usable by the intended audiences and closely
aligned to business processes - this means, for instance, being easy to find and
tailored to suit the questions and problems that naturally arise as part of a
business process. At this level the intranet 'works' in an operational sense.
- Focus on the 'knowledge sensitive' areas in which such improvements can make a big difference to the achievement of some strategic business goal. For instance, an organisation moving to global management of key customers or suppliers might need to develop knowledge content drawing on the opinions and insights of all its personnel, worldwide, who had any contact with those customers or suppliers, making the distilled learning available to all in return. It is only at this level that the intranet could be said to 'work' in a business sense - which makes this the most important level of achievement.
For example, many intranets already provide extensive facilities to support communication and collaboration within their architecture and so would score highly on a purely technical level. However, most would score less well on an operational level due to the low levels of usage of such facilities, and it is rare for organisations to have fully-exploited such facilities at a business level in terms of really supporting business strategy through their usage.
One thing is certain: The intranet cannot become a successful knowledge management tool simply by the adoption and addition of more and more sophisticated technology. What is needed is a broad approach that tackles the issues from all viewpoints; business, users, process and content as well as technology.
There are five key areas to address in order to knowledge-enable the intranet:
- Business integration: It is vital to ensure that the intranet
addresses the real business priorities of the organisation. This means that the
starting point for any initiative should be the business strategy and objectives;
being more customer-focused, working in strategic alliances, new
product development, mergers and acquisitions and so on. It is not enough that
the intranet should do that which it is technically capable of - it must focus on
doing that which the business demands. Critically, this means supporting the
core competencies of the organisation. In practice, and in contrast, many
knowledge intranets are implemented as 'infrastructural support' rather than
to support business strategy. The knowledge-enabled intranet addresses key
business issues and focuses on the knowledge content that lies at the core of
them: Customer knowledge, knowledge of alliance partners' strengths, ideas and
innovation in product development, competency mapping between merging
- Process integration: For the intranet to provide optimum support at the
operational level, there needs to be a close integration between people,
tasks, workflow and content. This comes down to integrating the intranet with
the business processes. Understanding how to do this is not simply a case of
undertaking traditional process modelling and looking for a suitable role for
the intranet. Rather, it requires a knowledge-directed approach that enables
the knowledge used, learned and shared within each task to be mapped and
analysed, and, possibly, re-designed. A knowledge-enabled call centre, for
instance, would be one far removed from the world of simple interaction
scripts. It would instead be based on dynamic access to advice and expertise,
enabling the operative to give detailed, specific information and explanations
to the caller. It may also allow self-service access to the knowledge base
directly by the caller. In this environment, call centre processes would
require redesign alongside their integration with the intranet.
- Cultural alignment: Getting the most from the intranet may
require behavioural change. For instance, employees may not suddenly become
empowered to take on a greater level of initiative in customer service simply by
being given better systems and information support; it may require them to take
a fresh look at their roles and behaviours, and to be more pro-active in
their approach. Re-organisation, job re-design, training and changes to
recognition and rewards are among the strategies available to encourage such shifts
where they are required. In the case of knowledge-enablement, social
and psychological issues require particular attention since knowledge
is fundamentally the individual and group property of the people who
create, share and consume it. The other big lesson is 'working with the grain':
Behavioural/cultural change management can be a long process; in the meantime,
it may be more effective to mould the intranet so that it works best within
the prevailing conditions.
- New technology: While technology alone will not knowledge-enable an
intranet, there are nonetheless a number of technology tools that can play a
valuable role in enhancing the support that the intranet can provide.
Organisations need to make best use of technologies such as workflow, document
management, portals, user profiling and intelligent agents.
- Content management: Some still do not realise that content is king. The worst failing of many otherwise well-designed intranets is the poor quality of the content. Even the best intranet is nothing but a hollow pipeline if content is lacking, badly designed, incorrect, incomplete or impossible to find. In many cases, basic processes for content sourcing, aggregation, tagging, sorting, editing, publishing and control are lacking or are poorly implemented. Basic information management procedures are needed, including the appointment of knowledge managers, webmasters and 'cybrarians' to undertake the vital roles and responsibilities for the management of key content resources and services. Content quality is a major issue. The knowledge-enabled intranet is one that provides a qualitatively different kind of content - content based on the differential learning and distinct expertise of each organisation rather than static information alone. This issue is examined below.
Knowledge Content Artefacts
One vital way in which to knowledge-enable an intranet is to increase its knowledge content. Knowledge content is qualitatively different to the kinds of content usually carried by either the static information or the paperless administration intranet. Consider the following knowledge content artefacts that might form a valuable part of the knowledge-enabled intranet:
- FAQ (frequently-asked questions - together with the answers)
- Lessons learned (distilled hints and tips)
- Best practices (most efficient/effective methods)
- Key contacts (who to contact in specific situations)
- Reminders (top-level warnings or suggestions)
- Corporate history (what happened in the past and what we have learned from
- Competitive analysis (not just information on competitors, but some
distillation of their relative strengths and weaknesses)
- Internal process models (illustration of how various operations run)
- 'How to...' (instructions and procedures)
- Problems and solutions (pooling the collective experience of dealing with
- 'Knowledge execution systems' - software applications that embody the models and instructions needed to draw logical deductions, give advice or guide a user through a complex process or set of regulations.
These items differ from the content types more usually found on intranets, such as newsfeeds, organisation charts and policy documents. But the above list is not exhaustive. Most major organisations have aspects of at least some of them in some areas. However, usually they are not adequately maintained nor fully applied in practice. What they all have in common is that:
- They are the distilled result of some analysis, aggregation,
generalisation or judgement made about a body of information or a number of
specific experiences or ideas
- To function properly they need to maintain their contact with experience and analysis so that feedback from usage and new ideas can be incorporated on an ongoing basis.
This means that they are linked to the learning process of applying the knowledge in the field, reviewing outcomes and new experience, and updating the artefact.
Such artefacts can become a uniquely differential source of advice, guidance and insight that can inform and improve strategic decision-making as well as day-to-day operations. The development of such resources - requiring business integration, process integration, cultural alignment, new technology and content management - can be a major step forward in the knowledge-enablement of the intranet.
A longer paper on the knowledge-enabled intranet is available from Unisys Consulting.
Robert Taylor is a knowledge management specialist with Unisys Consulting. He can be contacted at:email@example.com