In the 1999 sci-fi film The Matrix, revolutionaries trying to free an enslaved human race are hard-wired for data downloads. Characters bark out their knowledge needs to cohorts who load the appropriate information-from driving directions to sudden kung fu expertise-into disk drives connected to the recipients' brains.
You and I may never order up knowledge via a neural connection, but the movie points to the reality that information is valuable only if it's available as soon as it's needed.
The Matrix was a source of inspiration for Ed Sketch, director of Ford Motor Co.'s learning network. Sketch's mission is to make sure Ford employees can find the information they need on the company's intranet and put it to good use. He's organizing a searchable collection of Ford's educational assets, including books, research, publications, Web sites, training resources, and links to academic institutions.
Ford spends a lot of energy fine-tuning its search tools to make sure it's delivering what employees really need. The automaker uses employee surveys and manager assessments to analyze whether there are gaps in employee competency to do certain jobs. Using software from knowledge-management vendor Autonomy Inc., Sketch has built the Ford Learning Network so that when employees ask for job-related resources, it offers information that might fill those competency gaps. Then, employees are asked periodically for feedback on whether they've applied what they've learned from the system. If not, they're asked why, and their answers are used to improve the relevance of the results the search engine delivers.
If employees don't find what they're looking for right away, "they write off the search engine," Bank One's Gallagher says.
The average knowledge worker spends about a quarter of his or her day looking for information, according to research firms IDC and Delphi Group. No wonder IT departments want the right search tools to connect employees with relevant information faster. With the emergence of consumer search engines as viable business-search tools, IT and knowledge managers face a complicated choice: low-priced simplicity versus high-priced performance.
The technology has advanced significantly in the past year-most notably because Web search engines, led by the beloved consumer search engine Google, as well as Alta-Vista and Ask Jeeves, have firmly found their footing in the business world. The simplest tools, business licenses that can be had for less than $20,000, require very little effort on the part of users or IT departments because they rely on crawling techniques to search Web pages for content that matches a query. More-sophisticated systems require detailed categorization and classification of information. Systems from vendors such as Autonomy and Verity Inc. cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to deploy, but they appeal to companies such as Ford that see search as part of a sophisticated knowledge-management system and want to connect employees with the context that makes the data they locate more meaningful to their jobs.
At Bank One Corp., employees couldn't find basic information, including human-resources updates, accounts-payable entries, even content from public-facing Web sites. "If employees search for a term and don't get what they're looking for right away, they write off the search engine," says Mark Gallagher, manager of the bank's intranet communications team. So in the middle of last year, the bank invested $50,000 in a Google search appliance that can reference an index of up to 300,000 documents. Bank One configured the server to update its content index twice a week by searching the company's Web site and production servers that the bank's business units use.
What makes the Google appliance especially effective is that it works like the consumer version-the Web's most popular search engine-right down to a Google-branded search window on the company intranet. The tool's power is clear: Since Bank One went live with the system in September, the number of employee searches per day rose from about 4,000 to nearly 7,000. Gallagher calls the Google technology "underpriced."
Kaiser Permanente used Google to replace a more costly, complicated system. The health-maintenance organization developed a clinical-knowledge portal to give 50,000 doctors, nurses, and other caregivers access to best practices, educational material, and publications. It used Verity's knowledge-management application to power the portal's search engine, but it wasn't getting the desired results. Many medical terms have the same meaning-heart attack, myocardial infarction, MI-so it became a very labor-intensive process to make sure content was weighted and indexed in the Verity system so that the right data popped up without too many irrelevant answers, says Brad Hochhalter, director of the Permanente Knowledge Connection.