Thursday, 30 May 2013

Technology. A knowledge managers guide to tackling this dirty area

I'm actually going to stop apologising for the long pregnant pauses I've shown between posts. Rest assured though, I'm still about! I've also tried to make this entry a little more illustrated through the use of a groovy annotating tool I came across called thinglink. Please do have a go at hovering across the image and exploring the links. A larger version can be found HERE.

Anyway, onwards to this blog topic - beginning with an explanation for the choice of headline. I don't seriously mean technology is a "dirty" area of course. It's something I have a genuine interest in, appreciating the positive contribution it can make to knowledge management implementations  However, this contribution also needs to be put into perspective. Many KM practitioners (myself included) understand the importance of people in any successful KM initiative and technology on average should really only take about 20% of the focus. Yet there is an expectation in many KM roles to a smaller or larger extent to have an understanding of technology, if only from an end-user/business-end perspective. Although irrespective of how whizz-bang the technology offering is and what software vendors will claim theirs can do, it will (at best) be an enabler and not a solution in KM implementations. 'Social Life of Information' is a book that puts the area in context, respectfully and rationally.

Of course, technology itself is a huge field. Enterprise Content Management (ECM) and Social Software - Enterprise 2.0 type technologies were the areas that most related to my objectives at the time and the blog image above tells a story of some of the providers I have worked with over the last few years that may help other KM folk experiencing similar challenges.

Free or cheap

"Can you look into finding a tool that can act as an online forum? Oh and there's no room in the budget so it should probably be free". (It happens), in which case, something like PhPbb could function perfectly well as a business forum tool. Topics can be posted and answered by your community of users, although there still needs to be an active coordinator/moderator to encourage conversations and keep things on topic. PhPbb might not be disco enough for some people and there have been some security problems. However, it does function well, is easy to use and under the open source model is completely free.

Tactical solutions

Sometimes solutions need to be in place very quickly. Decisions and the implementation around an on the premise software solution while allowing complete control can also take time and are expensive in terms of overheads and maintenance costs. For smaller IT departments a cloud-based solution, such as Yammer, Huddle or Salesforce Chatter can make good alternatives. The latter is unashamedly modelled on Facebook for user experience and allows easy posting and replying to topics and searching for documents and expertise. Still on Salesforce, I'd recommend visiting one of their CloudForce events. As long as you don't get seduced by the hyperbole it will give you a chance to see how companies are practically adopting their tools and Salesforce really know how to throw a party!

A longer-term approach

As a rule, the cloud based content management  and search solutions I've mentioned don't have as rich a feature set as the more established vendors in the market, namely SharePoint - which personally I feel can provide pretty much anything. In the words of a KM friend of mine though, it is clunky, complete but a 'money pit' (due I guess to the development costs and the unwillingness of Microsoft to support smaller implementation projects). Being in a situation to provide something from scratch can be a challenging and an exciting and worthwhile time. Challenging, because things can get quite techie and venture into the domain of a systems analyst role. Exciting and worthwhile because you have a chance to really get to know the solution, involve the users from the beginning and be in a position to offer something refreshingly different from the usual corporate intranet.

The world of Enterprise content management (ECM) and social software can be a confusing area - even to the tech-savvy. Once you've agreed as an organisation what the ECM is supposed to help with, I found some useful places to start were to look at The site provides impartial reviews, new products and white papers on the areas of document and content management systems.

Gartner's Magic Quadrant although considered biased towards larger vendors does put forward quite a strategic selection criteria that can provide a good basis of questions for any organisations ECM selection process. Typically these include a vendors product and service functionality, financial health, profitability, revenue growth, customer feedback any any other factors that could help gauge if they are likely to be around in the future. Hardly exciting, but useful to know if you're going to be investing a considerable sum of money in a 3+ year solution. With this said, its better not to get too precious about any tool, after the 5 year mark any organisation should look into re-evaluating their content architecture for potentially better solutions.

Based on the functional, technical and security requirements of your organisation it makes sense to come up with a shortlist. SharePoint tends to be in the running, generally because it is one of the market leaders and SharePoint farms already exist in larger organisations. Folks like to stick to what they know sometimes, although there are a lot of technologies out there that can augment existing SharePoint implementations. Other contenders to consider might be their biggest opensource competitor, Alfresco - that can compete on functionality and knock spots off MS for value. Highland Onbase, which appeared to be particularly strong on document management capabilities (security and library services, check-in check out and versioning) and Jive - which Gartner class as 'social software in the workplace' amongst other areas. Ultimately it still comes down to what's needed in your company. In other words there is no best ECM, only a best fit.

From here it makes sense to do bring them in for a 'beauty parade', where your organisations stakeholders can score against a criteria agreed earlier. Try not to chuckle/get upset when any of vendors claim their solutions are a knowledge management solution or "will create" communities. From my experiences they seem to be more interested in providing a technology solution and not a knowledge management one. PowerPoints look great, so don't be shy on asking them for live demonstrations and arranging pilots (at their cost ideally).

Geographically dispersed workforce

If you've worked in an organisation where most of your colleagues are of no fixed abode, it is important to consider how easy it is for them to access and contribute to an organisation wide ECM when they are on the move or at client sites. Many vendors have also considered this and in addition to extranet access provide dedicated smartphone and tablet apps. Some are better than others, although Salesforce Chatter, Huddle, and Jive all provide impressive mobile access and I'd be interested to hear about other tools people have had success with.

Hearts and Minds

A question KM practitioners should ask themselves or be prepared to answer if asked is "what is going to be different this time round?" In other words how is your all singing, all dancing KM technology proposition going to be any different from previous (usually unsuccessful) technology implementations? It comes back to the key challenge of change management.

Although an IT tool itself is not the answer to change management, it's interesting to see how uses of technology can help with this crucial area. Apparently the most commonly used content management system within any organisation is the humble shared drive. One option is to mandate the use of a specific single repository. The reality is that a change programme like this will have varying degrees of resistance depending on how it is handled. Alfresco had a cuter approach to this situation. The existing shared drive access was kept in place including the regular icon. However, instead of this information being stored locally, it was actually being routed and saved in a central location. The user experience would remain unaffected and the system would be able to consolidate usually disparate knowledge bases into one centrally stored and accessible system.

A related challenge that you might come across is when an organisation may implement a technology for a company wide intranet platform. Then decide to launch successive knowledge bases with no thought into any kind of data migration or decommissioning plan. The result can be a confused and irritated user groups who save their work in what they believe is the best location, only to be told to move on to yet another platform without any type of hand holding or training. One approach to tackling these 'islands' within an organisation would be through the use of horizontal portal technology. These essentially work by consolidating several existing repositories into a single search interface to allow users to search targeted to their particular account. Tools such as liferay can act as an effective front-end portal for more established back-end content management systems such as Alfresco and SharePoint.


If you've managed to read this far, give yourself a pat on the back for surviving such a techie explicit post. 

In closing I'd say that many KM practitioners know the extent to which technology can help and yet its easy to find yourself thinking that it can provide a complete solution to KM. This above should really act as a reminder. From a a technology perspective vendor solutions, ECM and related tools can do pretty much anything. The real challenge comes down to change - something that can't be "populated and searched for" in the blink of an eye.