The Need To Know

Knowledge management has gone from pie-in-the-sky promises to more-realistic applications

Tony Kontzer, Contributor

August 15, 2003

4 Min Read

Shell International found it had to direct expert discussion, not just IT-enable it. The New Ways of Working initiative started by letting people create communities within the company in which professionals in similar disciplines around the world could participate in Web-based discussion threads, collaborate on documents, and post queries to subject experts. But the communities splintered into more than 100 groups. "An individual would have to join three, four, or even 10 communities just to get his or her job done," van Unnik says.

The company combined the groups to create 12 large communities that brought together related professional groups--say, corrosion engineers and pipeline engineers--that could collaborate to potentially solve problems faster. The platform is a Web-based application, SiteScape Inc.'s Enterprise Forum, that provides a personalized view of the communities a person belongs to and allows a user to search postings. For instance, a team of geophysicists facing obstacles in trying to identify the location of oil deposits in Lagos, Nigeria, might find that a team in another part of the world posted lessons it learned from a similar situation.

For grocery retailer Giant Eagle Inc., knowledge management was never a goal, but it happened nonetheless. The operator of 214 stores in Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia has a system that's part portal and part information repository, but with a focus foremost on simplicity. The results can be measured in buckets of fried chicken.

This spring, the company's South Euclid, Ohio, store put together a modest in-house display, and lo and behold, sales of the eight-piece buckets rose 122% over the previous year. Store director Brian Ferrier posted photos of the display and its results on the corporate knowledge portal. Almost immediately, other stores copied it and reported similar results. The information sharing is somewhat manual: Business analysts monitor the portal, called KnowAsis, and alert people they think should know about additions. The portal is based on collaboration software by Open Text Corp.'s LiveLink, which can automatically deliver updates, but Giant Eagle doesn't use that feature. It's not glamorous knowledge-management technology, but it works. "We're not interested in writing a Ph.D. dissertation on the vision and future of knowledge management," says Jack Flanagan, Giant Eagle's executive VP of business systems. "We just want something practical."

At environmental engineering company Montgomery Watson Harza, there's less emphasis on capturing knowledge in data form. Instead, the focus is on a network of communities accessed through the company's KNet knowledge portal, built on IBM Lotus' Domino collaboration server. Combined with the other Lotus collaboration tools embedded in the KNet portal, it creates a platform to connect people. "We made a conscious decision that our knowledge-management strategy would be people-centric, not knowledge-centric," says Bill Floor, director of IT strategy.

Montgomery Watson Harza shows how the line between knowledge-management and collaboration tools is increasingly blurred. Several months ago, a project manager brought all the tools to bear to help the company's biggest client, a utility in the United Kingdom, address a waste-water filtration problem. Using KNet, the project manager identified experts he thought could help with the problem, held an online meeting using conferencing capabilities embedded in the portal, and the problem was resolved in two hours. The result: Without spending a dime on travel, Montgomery Watson Harza saved the client from wasting $10 million on a new filtration system by drawing on the company's expertise. "It's why those tools are there," Floor says. "It brought the experts together and put people where they needed to be."

Knowledge management is still expensive. Intelligent search apps like Verity Inc.'s K2 cost more than $100,000, expertise software like Kamoon Inc.'s runs $175 a user or more, and instant-messaging and collaboration tools from IBM Lotus Software add as much as $38 per user. Add in consulting fees and labor costs, and it's not uncommon for large companies to invest millions setting up knowledge-management environments, says Delphi Group analyst Hadley Reynolds. But companies are buying: Research firm IDC forecasts that knowledge-management software sales will reach nearly $6.4 billion by 2006, up from $2.2 billion in 2001.

Regardless of what companies spend, the ones that succeed with knowledge management most often are those, like oil and gas company BP, that build off of the existing ways that work really gets done. "The nature of our culture is more of a verbal one than a written one," says Pete Smith, BP's technology VP of innovation, learning, and environment. "If we'd focused on information, it would have failed from the outset."

Much of BP's effort, including the technology, centers on putting people together. A homegrown application called Connect can search a company directory and a database in which 30% of the company's 105,000 employees have registered their work experiences. Most recently, BP added a process called "great operators," setting up teams to develop best practices related to exploration and production. The company expects that if it gets all 18,000 employees in that area involved in the Great Operator program, it could increase revenue by 25%. "It's pure knowledge management--but we never call it that anymore," Smith says.

With this kind of sharper focus on results, maybe the new names that knowledge management is going by won't pick up the same baggage those two words have accumulated.

Illustration by Terry Miura

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