Information overload...infoglut. It's not getting any better. Our databases get fatter with data from ERP applications, e-mail and documents bloat our hard drives, and the explosion of dot-coms and Web sites is staggering. As the amount of information increases, our ability to actually learn anything from it seems to decrease.

Many organizations have turned to intranets for distributing information. But, the typically static and isolated methods of creating intranet content can't keep pace with ongoing and dynamic information needs. Consider this: International Data Corporation predicts that the "information distributed through corporate intranets will undergo phenomenal growth of more than 37 times by the year 2002, orders of magnitude faster than any other time before or after." That's a lot of information, and most IT systems and organizations will struggle with effective distribution. Traditional organizational methods for individually accessing, gathering, storing, reusing and maintaining this enormous amount of information are becoming overwhelmed.

Taming Information Access

Enter the emerging concepts of corporate Web portals and knowledge management (KM). Many vendors are adopting the Internet portal model for delivering information inside the firewall. The enterprise information portal (EIP) does provide a good way for taming access to the diverse information available across intranets and the Internet. It does not, however, provide a complete solution. EIPs tend to copy the process of their Internet brothers by providing view-only access to hierarchical information. There is a fair degree of verticalization in the EIP market in which the portals deal with a single type of information (e.g., documents, analytics) and are limited in application capabilities, which results in the need for multiple portals. While providing good initial ROI on corporate intranets, the EIP deals only with information. Therefore, users must still infer any process and knowledge from the information.

KM is also gaining popular interest and holds many of the keys to taming information overload. KM is not embodied by a software application as much as it is a business discipline. This may explain why KM has yet to be widely embraced in the U.S. Many businesses are asking what KM is, rather than what KM means. KM puts forth the goal of achieving competitive advantage by leveraging the vast knowledge of a collective corporate memory. Think of the time and money spent on what we as organizations continually do ­ reinvent the wheel day after day. Most corporate knowledge sits inside the heads of employees digesting the vast amounts of information. While information is captured, knowledge is not; and pieces of it leave at the end of every employee's tenure. KM theory is the focus of a lot of academic research, but companies are only beginning to adopt the non-automated processes and culture to create a knowledge-sharing business model.

The enterprise knowledge portal (EKP) is an evolution of the portal that is influenced by the goals of KM. It combines EIP aspects while also capturing tacit knowledge, integrating access to expertise and embedding application functionality. The EKP not only provides the means for information access, but lets users interact to link information with their collective insight, value and experiences. EKPs enable people to make optimal decisions as EKPs combine acquired knowledge and information, and serve as a "self-documenting" center of experiential learning.

The EKP Value

The EKP is the first pragmatic KM application. Giving users one-stop interaction with appropriate intellectual capital, applications and expertise, the EKP speeds innovation and reduces the amount of rework in an organization.

The more barriers there are in gaining the right knowledge, the longer it takes to act. When too many barriers exist, the time required to develop the right answer or action is so long that we give up and take our best guess ­ truly not an optimal solution. The EKP reduces that time line by giving users a powerful and ever-improving road map to corporate knowledge and information.

Converging Ideas Make the EKP

The EKP, rooted in portals and KM, is the convergence of a lot ideas over the past 20 years. It is leading the way toward a new type of computing and business discipline ­ active computing over passive computing. Since the first file system, we have perfected the art of record keeping using computers ­ or passive computing. Active computing is being able to easily turn to a computer for real answers, real knowledge. How do we begin to provide active computing through an EKP? We begin by bringing together the ideas from a number of computing initiatives that each provide a piece of the puzzle ­ a convergence of initiatives.

Expert systems are concepts of inference and heuristic-based models that can be leveraged to assist the user in deriving value from the EKP. Expert systems and artificial intelligence (AI) techniques also form a starting point for delivering agent-based capabilities using the knowledge of the EKP.

Business intelligence (EIS/DSS) types of analysis are given context by the EKP to compare data analysis with other unstructured information to provide both a quantitative and qualitative picture.

Collaboration is a natural process for eliciting the capture of tacit knowledge. The EKP provides a framework for organizing and retrieving knowledge gained through the collaborative process.

Enterprise application integration (EAI) techniques are required for the EKP to effectively integrate information from multiple types of structured and unstructured sources. Unlike traditional EAI products which deliver inter-application communication, the EKP focuses on integrating the human view of different applications.

Computer-based training traditionally produces a very prescribed method of learning. The EKP can present training programs in context to a specific real-time need and truly provide a capability for continuous learning.

The power of each of these initiatives is lessened when they are used individually. It is much more difficult for the user to draw conclusions and build knowledge from these systems when they are used individually, let alone find it convenient from a serial navigation standpoint. The EKP pulls together these different capabilities into a comprehensive view. When combined with an agent-like awareness to our needs and areas of interest, the EKP can be an active agent in our pursuit of knowledge.

The Keys to an EKP Framework

While EKP is about the convergence of many capabilities, it would not be feasible to create a monolithic system. The EKP must also be extendable to all the unique aspects and components of an enterprise to avoid the need for separate, specialized and incompatible portals. EKP architectures must be able to wrap around the capabilities of many different applications and information sources and function as a single point of access, providing common meta data and security layers. To do this, we turn to object-oriented computing. The ability to embody both content and rules and specialize through subclassing makes objects a clear choice for representing the sources, relationships and interactions contained within an EKP (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: The Architecture of an EKP

The EKP allows users to interact with objects to define a pattern or network of organizational and personal knowledge. The EKP does this by providing its own functionality on top of the sources ­ the ability to create new objects, organize and cluster objects into patterns, and find objects and follow patterns in order to build and use knowledge. As the network of objects grows through use of the EKP, the value also grows as users continually turn information into knowledge.

Future trends of component software and XML also lend themselves to an object approach. As ERP vendors and other ISVs discuss the availability of future component-based access to their functionality, the EKP can be used to house and tie together these component objects. As XML grows into a set of recognized standards, XML becomes an open method of actually passing objects in and out of EKP sources.

Enterprise Knowledge Portal Checklist

EKP Feature Function
Automated Update Automatic update of content created through linked applications and portal-created content
Bidirectional Ability to create (input) and display content
Collaborative Share and collaborate on content
Content Organization and Discovery Automatice and manual categorization for groups and individuals as well as full text search and query by example
Customizable Flexible personalization and customization of content and "look and feel"
Extendability Access to almost any internal enterprise and external application or Web content
Rich Content Aggregate both structured and unstructured information
Secure Granular access controls for groups and individuals
Web Interface Access via standard Web browser

Initial deployments of EKP solutions are finding success in areas of supply chain management, customer relationship management (CRM) and intellectual property management.

Supply Chain Management. The diversified purchasing groups of a multinational business serve many business units very effectively. While the autonomy of these groups allows them to best serve individual business units, this autonomy also hinders the ability of different purchasing groups to share collective knowledge to better leverage their overall buying power. An EKP is being used to connect all purchasing groups around common elements of their responsibilities ­ suppliers, items and locations. Any purchasing employee can quickly gain access to the knowledge of others about contracts, spending information, observations and insights. The EKP connects what were before disconnected individuals with common skills and roles in a virtual community to build and share knowledge. By each individual having quick and easy access to all facets of their purchasing history, whether in a number from a data warehouse or a captured observation about a struggling supplier, the company expects to cut overall purchasing costs by millions of dollars.

Customer Relationship Management. A sales organization wants to better manage national accounts that are served from multiple offices, delivering a one-firm approach with each salesperson having the same knowledge about each customer. The EKP allows salespeople in each office to participate in developing a knowledge base around each customer. Proposals, observations, news intelligence and product specifications are all viewed by customer, industry and product type. The flurry of phone calls, faxes and e-mails is now managed efficiently through a user's Web browser, which allows salespeople to respond quickly to customers and repeat past successes/practices to build sales revenue.

Intellectual Capital. An architectural design firm with offices across the country wants to better leverage its previous work as the company grows. The EKP provides employees with a virtual design center for capturing project information, designs and team interaction. By reusing the collective knowledge of the design teams across design type, development and other related factors, the firm creates improved designs in less time.

Moving Toward an EKP

Any EKP solution does not come solely from slicing through the shrink-wrap. First, a company must develop an organizational KM strategy to address the cultural issues, business processes and measurements of any software implementation. A KM strategy should address:

An inventory of systems and information for the EKP. Create a map of the existing applications and repositories that contain valuable information. Also note what information is typically called upon that is not automated, but could be a candidate for capture through the EKP. Determine whether additional data warehouses or marts should be created to stage information or whether direct interaction with the data sources is appropriate.

How different divisions, functional areas, customers and vendors will interact with the EKP. Determine the audiences for the portal. Is your primary concern communication between employees, partners, customers or the general public ­ or is it all of these? A guide to audience participation helps determine additional user interface and security requirements for implementation.

A review of business processes and policies that may conflict with a knowledge-sharing culture. Every organization develops a knowledge economy: the nature of how individuals provide and consume knowledge. If your organization focuses on fostering the open exchange of information, ideas and personal knowledge, then you're well on the way to achieving even greater benefit from automating the process. If individuals in your organization feel that job security is best achieved by hoarding what they know, any EKP effort will languish without addressing the root policies that foster this behavior.

Types of incentives that will be provided to encourage EKP use. Remember that in most instances you are changing people's behavior ­ asking employees to work as a collective group through an automated portal. Until new methods of working together become commonplace, you may want to consider rewarding individuals for contributing to the knowledge base. An EKP should be able to report the nature and volume of contributions.

Select an EKP based upon its framework for a solution. How will it adapt to your business and how can you extend its capabilities? The EKP you choose should provide an open approach to customization, work with a diverse range of information types, allow you to embed applications in the portal and provide appropriate security measures for access to content and capabilities. Most importantly, the EKP should allow users to actively participate in collaboration and knowledge building within the portal (see Checklist).

As you implement an EKP solution, focus on incrementally adding communities rather than pursuing a big-bang approach for the whole enterprise. Each community (e.g., human resources, purchasing, etc.) will require attention and specialization that could make an all-at-once implementation daunting. Look for an EKP that has the flexibility to adapt to the needs of the entire organization. Always use a guiding strategy to maintain overall goals and provide consistency.

The EKP evolves along with a continuous KM business discipline. Consider formalizing KM roles and process management in your organization and managing knowledge reuse on a constant basis. While an internalized KM business discipline and an effective EKP do not come without some work, they ultimately promise to provide a level of process automation and corporate efficiency yet to be achieved through traditional information technology.

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