Monday, 29 January 2007

Knowledge-sharing? What's the problem?

Why do some (many? most?) organisations think that the tools they use now to enable knowledge-sharing are adequate? They will point to phones, email, perhaps texting, maybe instant messenger, shared drives, and assert that these are all that is required. (The first three, by the way, were mentioned by my 7 year old son when I tried to explain enterprise knowledge sharing to him.) They might also have videoconference facilities, web-based conferencing like Webex . Maybe somewhere someone uses an EDRMS / ECM system like Filenet or Documentum. (ECM of course stands for 'Enterprise Content Management', but does everyone have access to it? Probably not. More likely, a particular department uses it for a single purpose; for example the operations department uses it to scan paper transactional documents.)

So there is no shortage of channels available. But just as the existence of a wide choice of secondary schools in London does not mean that I have a satisfactory solution to my children's educational needs, the wide choice of communication channels available in the average organisation does not necessarily mean that they are able to share knowledge adequately, let alone well.

Let's look more closely at the problems associated with the the channels mentioned above. I'm going to save email for last, so I can devote plenty of space to laying the boot into it.

Phones, texting and IM are great for instant, one-to-one and one-to-several communication. It's not for nothing that the world has been using phones avidly for 100 years and that mobile phone companies are able to charge such premium prices. Their immediacy is a plus, and with phones, at least, there is potential richness to the communication, thanks to the use of intonation and so on. But where is the record? Does anyone store voicemails and use them as a knowledge base? I doubt it. And while clever companies like Autonomy claim to be able to search and manipulate the spoken word, this particular technology is used for (and I suspect will continue to be confined to) specialist purposes.

How about shared drives? Encourage people to use a shared drive instead of H: for team-relevant documents and the problem's solved, isn't it? Well, no, actually, as I suspect most people who have tried this will testify. In all but small organisations the shared drive is still usually an island, separated from other teams by the moats of team- and department-level access control. Not in the department? Sorry, you can't get at the stuff. "Don't worry, I'll email it to you." Damn, I said I'd leave email till last....

I've not finished with shared drives. Ever tried finding what you're looking for on a shared drive? It might contain a hierarchy of folders, but it probably won't have been designed with input from all users. It probably just grew organically. Or maybe the hierarchy was set up by an ex-member of the department some years ago, and no-one can remember the rationale behind the folder names. Then when you click on a folder and look at the contents, you get a baffling list of obscure titles. Want to find out what's inside? You have to click on each document, then close it when you find it's not what you were looking for. All very frustrating and time-consuming. In fact, if you know who the originator was, you'll probably pick up the phone and ask him or her to e - no, I said I'll leave that till last.

How about searching the shared drive using Windows Find? OK, sorry I even said it.

I'm going to lump Sharepoint in with shared drives. Having used Sharepoint regularly for about six months recently I think I know what I'm talking about. Sharepoint solves the 'islands of information' problem associated with shared drives, because, being web-based (yes, please!) it provides an enterprise-wide platform with (if desired) universal access. It also has some other quite decent features that I won't go into here. It's big weakness is that it's still structured like a shared drive, or at least it encourages you to use it that way. So you end up trying to navigate through the same inscrutable folder/document collections as before.

I'm going to skip over VCs and web conferencing, because they suffer from the same problem as phone/text/IM - no really useful repository.

What about EDRMS / ECM systems? Well, they are impressive suites of software, aren't they? They also have an impressive price tag. Furthermore, those that I have seen, insofar as they are used by everyone in the organisation - if they are - tend to be used as an overlay to MS office, shared drives and so on. They provide a management layer, which is OK perhaps, but really they are used to manage the mess that's been created through the use of the wrong tools in the first place. It's a bit like using a complicated computerised steering correction system in a car when you could simply have had the wheels rebalanced and the bearings adjusted instead.

Now, email... actually, I think I'll save that for the next post.

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