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Coming: knowledge portals

Once a hot buzzword, knowledge management is now mired in confusion surrounding its definition. But the notion of managing knowledge is still very much alive--via enterprise portals.

Knowledge management has always been a laudable ambition, especially in the brave new world of the information worker. Efficient access to key information can make a big difference to employees' productivity and ultimately the company's profitability.

Companies have long tried to both make sense of all the information that they have collectively accumulated over time and try to capture the business-critical information that resides in the heads of their key employees. Knowledge management promised to provide the wherewithal for capturing and disseminating this business-critical information.

But many companies became unstuck deploying knowledge management systems as they found that some users were unwilling to share their information and use the system. Many of these projects failed because companies had failed to tie knowledge management to a business objective. When knowledge management is viewed as an IT initiative or simply another software application the project is doomed to failure.

More than a technology
"Knowledge management is a tough subject to pin down," says Meta Group analyst Geoffrey Mann. "Companies should not think of it as a technology, it is more of an approach to information." According to Mann, there are two main approaches to knowledge management: collaborative and navigational knowledge management.

Collaborative knowledge management is all about capturing the information that has been kept in peoples' heads, rather than being documented. To be successful, companies typically have to undertake a fairly lengthy authoring process to get this information into a shared resource. Navigational knowledge management, on the other hand, is focused on trying to glean knowledge from the vast reams of information that companies have collected; this involves search and taxonomies, for example.

Given that knowledge management's key purpose is to disseminate information to the organisation, it is an excellent match for enterprise portals. "Portals do figure a lot in knowledge management initiatives, because enterprise portals are all about access," agrees Mann. He warns, however, that although knowledge management is sometimes a driver for enterprise portals, it could be the road to ruin for the project. "The best drivers for enterprise portal projects are specific, usually with measurable results and more clear goals."

Importantly, the practice of knowledge management needs to be integrated into an enterprise's way of working. "The best way to make knowledge management work is to make it a part of the way that people work," says Mann. "This requires a change in attitude and the act of updating the knowledge base needs to be an integral part of the process. Portals can help here because the signing off process can be integrated with the portal, and into the workflow. Knowledge management should not be seen as a separate application."

For example, if a customer service representative creates a new piece of information for the customer portal, when they upload it, the item is sent to marketing to make sure that the messaging is right. When they approve it, the item is then sent to the legal department to give it the final all clear and the item is then uploaded. This entire workflow can be incorporated into the enterprise portal.

A dirty word?
The failure of some early knowledge management projects has made some vendors even reluctant to use the term 'knowledge management'. "We don't use knowledge management as a term because it means many things," says Dominic Johnson, marketing director at Autonomy. "We provide a technology component for the knowledge management ecosystem."

"I wouldn't call knowledge management a dirty word, but it has been associated with a technology that is starting to get bypassed," says Doug Warner, head of applied research at Rightnow. "The traditional approach to knowledge management was very labour intensive in particular for the author of the knowledge item and it typically creates static information," explains Warner. "Something that is relevant today might not be relevant tomorrow."

One way of making sure that the information is current is by tracking user access and determining whether the user found the information useful. If a user is looking for a certain piece of information and finds it after navigating through three documents, then the next user looking for the same piece of information can be directed to the previously found document. And of course, the more users on the system the better this works, which makes it a good match for enterprise portals where many users access the information.

Another key direction for knowledge management is that users should be able to find their information without actually having to search for it. "In traditional knowledge management the user has to query the system, and often needs to know a fair bit about the subject to be able to carry out the search successfully," explains Warner. When users go to a search interface, they should be presented with a list of the most commonly searched items, which will go a fair way to solving their problem.

"It is all about offering a 'browse' interface for search. This is very useful if you are new to a subject and don't know the terminology," says Warner. This approach is already familiar with search portals such as Yahoo, but those directories are all created manually, which is time-consuming and expensive.

Self-seeking content
The Meta Group's Mann agrees that automation is the future. "The biggest trend I see is the shift to an application-based approach," he says. "The content should actually find you. For example, an application should understand what you are doing and present you with the relevant information." Integrating applications and knowledge management in an enterprise portal will help companies realise this.

Analyst Forrester expects a new phase of enterprise search to emerge by 2006. Applications will be able to use ontologies to put information into context, which will reveal previously unknown relationships. Companies will build applications that will let users sort, filter, compare and contrast content. It says that these new engines will enable OLAP-like analysis on otherwise unstructured content.

Automation is already an important part of some technology solutions. The most well known comes from U.K. firm Autonomy, which was started as a spin-off from academic research on Bayesian probability. "We use a statistical approach to information," explains Autonomy's Johnson. "For example, it is easy to search for the word 'penguin' in a document, but you don't know whether it is the bird, the publisher or a biscuit. However if you add it to other searches at the same time, such as fish and water, you will be able to determine the context."

Autonomy also allows companies to build up profiles of information usage. "Lawyers based in different location will look at similar documents so you can build up an expertise profile," says Johnson. "You can put these people in touch with each other as they will be able to work together. You can also use it when people are working in the same area, to avoid duplication of effort." Companies can determine this simply by analysing the information the users are accessing, using and publishing.

In fact Autonomy's technology is already available with a range of enterprise portals. The company has licensed the technology to portal vendors, allowing them to link to the Autonomy engine. This looks likely to be the way forward for knowledge management in enterprise portals. It will make the knowledge engine an integral part of the portal and should help enterprise avoid the pitfalls that appeared in the first phase of knowledge management deployment.