Intranets and knowledge sharing
Much has been made of the emphasis on people and process in knowledge management. While it is certainly true that knowledge management is not a technology issue, effort must still be spent in providing a suitable environment to facilitate knowledge capture and sharing.
For most organisations, this role is most easily taken on by the corporate intranet, the existing information resource that is available to most (if not all) staff. While many intranets are still languishing as a dumping ground for business documents, there is the potential to make intranets a valuable tool to support knowledge management initiatives.
This article challenges the vision of the corporate intranet as a publishing tool, or a static repository for web pages or documents. Instead, it looks at a number of ways in which the intranet can become a dynamic and living environment for knowledge-based activities.
Five key approaches are covered:
- communities of practice and intranets
- staff directories and expertise finders
- collaborative environments
- intranet-based knowledge tools
- using the intranet to drive cultural change
The goal of this article is to provide an overview of these approaches (a book could be written to comprehensively cover this topic.)
(Note: this article has been adapted from a paper prepared for the KM Challenge conference held in Sydney on 30-31 March 2004.)
The intranet must be established as a key platform for knowledge management initiatives
Communities of practice and intranets
The approach ‘communities of practice’ was developed by Etienne Wenger to explicitly recognise the importance of the less-formal knowledge sharing that occurs between peers, and within small groups. This has grown to be of major interest within the knowledge management community, and it has been used successfully within (and between) many organisations.
An intranet can play a valuable role in supporting the establishment and ongoing activities of a community of practice, including:
- Building a ‘home page’ for the community of practice, which can be used as the basis for establishing the identity of the group, and promoting its existence throughout the organisation.
- Providing a collaborative environment that can be used by community of practice members, especially those located in other offices, cities or states. (See ‘collaborative environments’ below.)
- Offering a mechanism by which the output of the community of practice can be disseminated to the rest of the organisation (a weblog can be very effective for this).
One of the key elements of a community of practice is that the group takes on the responsibility for the stewardship of the knowledge within their domain. This often involves the creation of some form of knowledge base, or content repository.
Once captured, this knowledge can then be shared with other areas of the business that may face the same challenge, or stored for future use.
This knowledge base may be constructed using a number of different possible technologies:
- content management systems
- collaborative environments
- specialised community of practice tools
Regardless of the tools used, the environment must be established with an understanding of the nature of the knowledge sharing, and must be driven by the needs of the community of practice itself.
In short: while a community of practice must obviously focus on human interaction, it must also be supported by an effective environment and infrastructure. As the community of practice matures, there must also be the capability to build a knowledge resource that will be of ongoing value.
In both these cases, the intranet has an important role to play as an enabler for the nurturing of communities of practice. An intranet itself can also be substantially enriched by recognising its role in supporting these knowledge sharing activities.
Staff directories help to connect staff in an organisation
Staff directories and expertise finders
It has been argued by some in the KM community that knowledge can only be shared through the communication of ideas from person to person. While this is not the only form of knowledge management, the role of interpersonal communication must be recognised as critical within organisations.
The first step towards supporting this form of knowledge sharing is to facilitate staff people contacting each other, and the most obvious tool for enabling this is the corporate staff directory. In many organisations this is the most-used aspect of an intranet, and is accessed by the majority of staff upwards of several times per day.
Despite the critical nature of the staff directory, it is perhaps surprising that many organisations have implemented only very limited solutions. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to outline in detail the design of a staff directory, there are a number of approaches that are interesting from a knowledge management perspective:
Including staff photos can be a very effective way of personalising a staff directory, as well as helping to locate people when wandering the floors. In some organisations, it has also generated interest when new staff members join.
There is often a need to find a contact in a specific part of the organisation. Linking the staff directory entries into an up-to-date organisational chart enables users to browse the organisational structure, as well as allowing searches for people within specific business areas. This is an effective way of overcoming ‘silos’ and assisting in the sharing of knowledge across organisational boundaries.
Linking to projects and content
Two-way links can be formed from the directory entry to the projects that the staff person is involved in, and the content on the intranet they are responsible for maintaining. These links can then be a very effective way of contacting the experts in a particular area, by finding the relevant content on the intranet, and working back to the owner.
Focus on processes that keep the staff directory up-to-date
Expertise and knowledge
Listing the specific expertise, skills and knowledge of a staff person enables searches to be made for sources of knowledge, even when the holder of that knowledge isn’t known.
This last point warrants particular attention. Much has been made of the creation of ‘expertise finders’ (or other similar approaches) as part of knowledge management projects. While the principles underlying these systems are sound, the challenge has proven to be encouraging people to list their expertise, and to keep the directory up to date.
In many organisations, expertise directories have fallen into disuse, in some cases replaced by community of practice approaches. Still more can be done to explore the full potential of expertise finders, particularly with a focus on the underlying processes for obtaining and maintaining the information.
(For example, one organisation picks an entry from the staff directory at random each month. If information proves to be complete and up-to-date, the staff person wins a prize. If it isn’t, they are contacted and told ‘you could have won a prize if your information had been up to date’. Using reward and recognition schemes such as this one are a potentially powerful way of making staff directories into a viable and sustainable solution.)
Knowledge management must occur on three levels
Knowledge management must occur on three levels within an organisation:
- Organisation: knowledge that is critical to all staff throughout the organisation. This need is typically met by standard corporate intranet content, such as policies and procedures.
- Team or business unit: information that is shared within a team, and is not of general interest to others within the organisation.
- Personal: knowledge, skills and expertise needed by an individual staff person. In technical terms, this is often facilitated by the use of e-mail, while skills are gained through training, coaching or mentoring.
It is at the middle (team) level that collaborative environments can be of greatest benefit when capturing and sharing knowledge. Many organisations have taken this path, and have supported the creation of team-level collaborative spaces using a range of technologies.
These have proved to be effective in supporting both communities of practice, and formalised teams and project groups. With collaborative technology becoming ever more powerful, these tools are becoming a key part of work practices.
The challenge, however, is to ensure that these collaborative areas do not become anti-knowledge sharing. The danger is that teams or individuals will store all their information within these areas, in a semi-structured format that is of little value to other staff.
These has been clearly seen in some of the early adopters of collaborative tools, where upwards of 40,000 work spaces were created. With this profusion of individual areas, and few overall knowledge gathering or indexing tools, the knowledge cannot be found. Over time, it would have been cheaper to simply delete the information, with so few able to find or reuse the knowledge.
Knowledge management approaches must therefore be used to identify and distil the key information within these collaborative spaces for the benefit of the organisation as a whole. These ongoing processes then need to be supported by appropriate policies and guidelines for users of the collaborative spaces.
Beyond these knowledge gathering activities, the collaborative spaces themselves should be placed within the context of the intranet as a whole, and classified according to a single taxonomy.
Going forwards, it is clear that collaborative tools will grow in use within organisations, but the challenge for the knowledge management community is to ensure that they promote effective knowledge sharing within an organisation, not create a hundred ‘silos’ of walled-off information.
Explore new approaches to capturing knowledge
Intranet-based knowledge tools
A number of interesting new technologies have surfaced in the last few years which have a strong focus on knowledge management. This article looks at three approaches:
All of these technologies can be characterised as:
- widely adopted
- produced by community efforts
- typically open-source
- driven by real-world needs to share knowledge
These are not the grand ‘knowledge management systems’ touted by vendors, but rather grass-roots initiatives that have evolved rapidly to tackle age-old problems in interesting new ways. Most encouragingly, all of these technologies are still innovating rapidly, and are blending together in ways that are hard to predict.
Weblogs harness the power of narrative
Weblogs have exploded in popularity over the last year. At their most simple form, a weblog (also commonly known as a ‘blog’), is an online diary created by one or more writers. They typify the new class of ‘personal publishing’ tools that some see as a ‘disruptive’ threat to existing publishing tools.
A weblog provides a simple interface for writing a new entry, typically via an online form. This is published to the site, with standard page layout and formatting automatically added. What the reader sees is then an online diary, with the most recent posts first, and an archive of past writings.
There are now tens of thousands of weblogs in existence, written by a wide range of people (including my weblog Column Two), covering every possible topic. A quick search for ‘knowledge management’ will reveal dozens of weblogs specifically addressing this subject.
From a knowledge management perspective, weblogs harness the power of conversation (narrative) to convey messages in a very honest and powerful way. With weblogs being written in a first-person format, the voice of the author comes through clearly, thereby supporting the message with the reputation of the author.
As such, weblogs are increasingly being used by individuals, communities and companies to share knowledge across traditional boundaries.
Weblogs become particularly interesting when they are used within an organisation, where they are known as ‘knowledge logs’ or ‘k-logs’. This has been an approach evangelised primarily by John Robb.
The proponents of this approach see k-logs as a way of breaking down barriers within the organisation, and facilitating a more efficient flow of information and knowledge. For example, key individuals with the knowledge and respect can use weblogs to record progress on strategic projects or issues. By building on the reputation of the writer, weblogs harness the recognised benefits of ‘storytelling’ techniques.
Weblogs can also be used by project teams to both communicate to the wider organisation, and to keep track of who is doing what within the team. In this way, the team weblog acts as a voice for the project, and an archive of past decisions.
For more on k-logs, join the k-logs mailing list: groups.yahoo.com/group/klogs.
Wikis offer a new approach to content management
Wikis are a surprising new approach to publishing online information. They are essentially an ultra-lightweight content management system, developed primarily in the open-source world. They work as follows:
- At the bottom of each page, there is an ‘edit this page link’.
- Anyone can click on this link to bring up an editing screen, make changes, and click ‘save’.
- The page is then instantly updated with the changes.
- Creating a new page is as simple as capitalising a word in a specific way, and it automatically becomes a link. Click on this link, and the user is given the option of creating a new page.
A wiki imposes no controls over who can create or edit pages. Making it very simple to update content supports the ongoing growth of content, and not imposing any restrictions encourages multiple people to add content to a single page.
It is this easy of editing and natural support for collaborative work which makes wikis an ideal tool for communities of practice, or team-level knowledge sharing. The author has used a wiki in this way to support the innovation of practices within his consulting team.
What is extremely interesting from a knowledge management perspective is the way in which wikis, due to their complete lack of control or restrictions, fundamentally rest upon the social dynamics of the communities that use them.
While any user can delete at will the work of others, this rarely happens. Instead, the use of wikis seems to encourage the free flow of information between participants and the voluntary contribution of additional knowledge.
Over time, the community using a wiki builds its own language and structure (ontology) for the domain that the site covers. This collaborative, innovative and incremental development of knowledge is a rich source of exploration for knowledge management professionals.
A remarkable example of the power of wikis is the wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org), a public site where visitors from across the globe have voluntarily contributed their knowledge to a (now substantial) free encyclopedia. A fascinating question is why this site succeeded on such a large scale when so many other knowledge-sharing initiatives have failed.
The intranet can support change management activities
Using the intranet to drive cultural change
The goal of many knowledge management initiatives is to promote cultural change in an organisation, whether directly related to knowledge-sharing activities, or broader behaviours. In many cases, the intranet is used as a tool to disseminate information about such projects, whether via news items or project pages.
Beyond just a communication platform, however, the intranet itself can itself be a powerful tool to drive cultural change within an organisation. While a successful intranet should reflect the culture of the organisation it serves, it can also be said that the vision and image presented by an intranet can also influence the organisation’s culture.
A powerful example of this is when two (or more) organisations merge. Each of the original organisations has its own culture, and its own intranet. The challenge is to create a single shared culture that is both viable and sustainable.
For a detailed exploration of this issue, see last month’s KM Column article Intranets when organisations merge.
This is but one example of how the intranet can be used to propagate a vision for the organisation which is taken on by staff, and similar approaches can be taken in a single organisation undergoing change. As yet, this is a little-explored approach within either the knowledge management or intranet communities.
It is also interesting to explore the role of the intranet team when the intranet itself is being used to drive cultural change. Instead of acting as a centralised gatekeeper for the publishing of content, the intranet team can take on a quite different responsibility (see the earlier article Intranet teams: a leadership and coaching role).
Start by identifying needs, then select a solution
Framework for expanding the intranet
This article has outlined a number of ways in which an intranet can be used to support knowledge management initiatives within an organisation. In most organisations, the intranet is still not well-placed to play this role, and the challenge is to find a process for expanding the capabilities of the intranet to meet knowledge management needs.
As a first caution: regardless of the approach, the intranet (or any other technology platform) must not be driven forward in isolation. Years of experience with ‘build it and they shall come’ approaches have shown that the intranet must be subservient to identifying and meeting the people and process issues within an organisation.
The following process is therefore recommended:
- Identify the knowledge needs throughout the organisation, by using approaches such as stakeholder interviews (see the article Stakeholder interviews as simple knowledge mapping), or other appropriate knowledge mapping approaches.
- Develop a knowledge management strategy for addressing these needs. This strategy will certainly include issues that will be addressed through the deployment of intranet capabilities and content. This knowledge management strategy should also include an information management policy, which outlines the role that each of the technology platforms will play in meeting organisational knowledge needs.
- Use best practice usability and information architecture techniques to design effective interfaces and efficient information structures. Task analysis techniques are particularly appropriate for knowledge management projects.
- Develop suitable technology platforms, such as those outlined earlier in this paper.
- Conduct change management and internal communications activities to encourage adoption of the new systems and processes.
There are a number of benefits to applying this staged approach:
- The initial research will identify key needs throughout the organisation, covering business processes, staff information needs, cultural issues, and technology requirements. This will give a holistic view of the organisational needs and challenges.
- The user-centred design techniques (usability and information architecture) will provide detailed guidance on how the knowledge management systems should work, in order to facilitate and encourage use by staff.
- Technology plays a suitable role, driven by the broader needs and specific designs identified by the combination of knowledge management and user-centred design techniques.
- The use of knowledge management techniques such as storytelling provide a powerful basis for internal communications and cultural change.
While knowledge management must focus on supporting the sharing of knowledge between individuals, this cannot be done in isolation. Instead, knowledge management projects must recognise the importance of providing effective platforms for this dissemination of knowledge.
The corporate intranet can therefore be seen as providing a foundation for knowledge management initiatives. On top of this foundation, a range of valuable technologies can be used to directly support KM goals, including: collaborative environments, weblogs and wikis.
In many ways, the evolution of these tools is keeping pace with, or outstripping, the pace of innovation in the knowledge management field as a whole. This points to a future where a seamless knowledge management environment encompassing both the physical and online worlds will start to be a practical reality.