Sunday, April 30, 2006

Fundamental Questions Related to Storing and Sharing Knowledge Items

Any approach that intends to capture, store, and disseminate knowledge items must address some fundamental questions:

1. Assuming that individuals have personal knowledge repositories, how can these repositories be shared?
One approach would be to change the corporate culture and allow co-workers to search each other’s personal repositories. While this might be a viable solution in some cases, especially where one employee is a back up for another employee, it is not a generally viable solution due to other problems. One such problem is that personal repositories often contain items that are not of general interest. Another issue is that some kind of information filtering would be needed. In some cases, filtering might not be sufficient and some kind of packaging would be necessary so that the content becomes useful for a third party.

2. How can the common repository be populated? One answer is to enable employees to contribute from their personal repositories. This is a relatively simple problem from a technology point of view, because employees are asked to share something they already have. However, it might raise a psychological issue if people do not want to give away their personal knowledge. Moreover, if employees are asked first to capture their own knowledge and then to share it, the request is likely to encounter resistance. An example is asking employees to share their lessons learned, which would not be hard to do had they already collected these lessons.

3. How must the common (organizational) repository be organized so that it provides easy search and retrieval of knowledge items?
There are many different approaches for organizing knowledge items. Some are based on AI techniques (such as case-based reasoning), some are based on advanced probabilistic indexing techniques, and others are based on a combination of manual and automatic generation of taxonomies.

4. How can people be persuaded to use the repository? In many cases this is more a cultural problem than a technological one. Software reuse, for example, is a cultural problem because software engineers do not trust code developed by others. Another issue is that in many organizational settings it is easier to find someone to ask for a solution instead of searching in repositories for answers. A third problem is having empty repositories. Inherently, any repository is nearly empty when first introduced, which gives potential users the perception that the repository and the whole initiative of sharing are worthless. This, in turn, prevents them from adding to the repository, because nobody wants to add items to something that is perceived as worthless.

5. How are contributions from users collected so that the repository evolves? Feedback from users is essential for improving the repository and the process.

6. How are usage and content of the repository analyzed and how can new knowledge be synthesized, based on this analysis? The initial seed of a repository is likely to be relatively raw material. Raw material would be lessons learned, incident reports, defect reports, project post-mortems, frequently asked questions with answers, results from projects, etc. While this raw material is useful by itself, it is also desirable to analyze and synthesize it into more refined knowledge items.

Source: Knowledge Management in Software Engineering

Thursday, April 20, 2006

How blogs and wikis can help knowledge management

The e-consultancy site offers advice on many e-business topics. In a recent post Wayne Robinson discusses how blogs and wikis can help knowledge management. Wayne writes, “From my window, I can see the great cathedral of York Minster,” which certainly makes me envious. He goes on to link the building of this cathedral to how knowledge is gained, including the socialization, externalization, and then the concept of combination.

“Combination is the process of creating more complex and systematic sets of explicit knowledge - it is combined, edited or processed to create new knowledge. Blogs can aid in this process firstly by making the explicit knowledge available in the first place, and then making it possible to add to what exists through linking, quoting or commenting. A wiki enables rapid creation of explicit knowledge, but also makes it incredibly easy to edit and combine. And both provide a readily-accessible store of the new knowledge.”

He then goes on to discuss how knowledge is externalized and adds:

“By providing a way of creating explicit knowledge from the store of tacit knowledge around the organisation, blogs and wikis can aid the internalisation process. Reading the progress of a project through a blog archive, or following a procedure that’s been documented in a wiki enables an individual to convert this into the tacit knowledge that will allow them to be effective in their roles. But having internalised the explicit knowledge, this can then lead to a new spiral of knowledge creation - tacit knowledge accumulated by the individual can be the trigger for new knowledge creation when it is shared with others.”

There is more and further suggested readings including Managing Knowledge: An Essential Reader, published by the Open University and Sage Publications.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Twelve key features for your business portal

TechTarget has compiled a basic list of Twelve key features for your business portal. I say basic because today's intranet or extranet portals have grown beyond these basic features. To really get the employees, partners and customers into the portal and retain them, portal would need to have some extra savvy features. Next post on this blog will go into detail on those. For now, TechTarget says;

Features for the extranet

There is no one answer to which features are mandatory and which are optional in portal design. Despite the lack of agreement on a single list, everyone agrees that there are several important features that you should consider when setting your extranet portal strategy. Those features include:

* Search: Your search functionality should be able to query both structured and unstructured content by keywords. Structured data are the databases and transactional systems, such as an ERP system. Unstructured content includes all of the office documents, proposals, and other information that cannot be easily entered into a database.
* Consistent, easy-to-use interface: Portals typically have a consistent interface which flows from the home page down through every area of the portal. The interface is typically designed specifically to make using the portal very easy. This may include breadcrumbing to link to higher levels in the hierarchy; and hovering menus, which allow for an expanded list of links.
* Minimal client deployment: Portals typically do not require that the users install new software. This generally means that portals are Web-based.
* Discussions: Some portals provide discussion forums where users can interact with one another and with the portal host. These forums are designed to strengthen the relationship between users and the host organization.
* Aggregation: Pulling links and content together into a single place helps users know where to go if they are looking for information. Aggregation allows a user to interact with several systems from one single user interface.
* Alerts: Users can sign up for e-mail notification when the information that they are interested in changes. This can include both key performance indicator changes and changes in information within documents. Alerts shift the model of user interaction from a pull model, where users must go check the portal, to a push model, where they will be informed when something of interest on the portal changes.
* Self service: Portals can be a home for a variety of self-service applications, which allow customers, employees, and others to take care of their own needs.

With the features listed above you can create an interactive environment where clients and other partners can find what they are looking for and interact in an easy-to-use way that should increase users of your extranet.

Features for the intranet

In addition to the features that you should consider for an extranet there are special considerations for intranet deployments. You should consider additional features for your intranet, because intranet users typically stay connected for longer periods of time than extranet users. The additional features include:

* Digital dashboard: A dashboard lets you display key status indicators for several business processes and systems on a single screen, giving the user a quick overview of overall status and allowing rapid identification of problems. Digital dashboards offer an opportunity for executives to get a complete view of the overall landscape of the organization, including portions of the organization that cannot be reduced to a set of key performance indicators.
* Personalization: The ability for groups and individual users to customize the way that the information is displayed. Filtering content to the information that a group is interested in and being able to change the location of the information on the screen is considered an important way in which portals create a user-friendly experience.
* Knowledge management:Your employees hold the keys to most of the information in your organization. Portals provide a repository for the information that employees have developed through experience. Portals help to broaden the usefulness or leverage of the knowledge that the organization already possesses.
* Collaboration:Some portals provide tools necessary to facilitate better collaboration. This might include the presence of information to help identify when coworkers are available, or lists to help organize tasks, events, and announcements.
* Distributed control:One of the challenges that many IT organizations face is trying to maintain their existing intranet systems. Distributed control via a content management system allows individual owners to manage the content aspects of the portal in their areas.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Creating a Knowledge Sharing Culture

A critical factor for knowledge and experience sharing is that management creates trust amongst employees, and between employees and management. It should be noted, though, that this is a long-term goal. The fear that information can be interpreted and used against individuals has been acknowledged in other aspects of software engineering, for example in measurement. A solution to this problem is, for example, the one proposed by the Experience Factory (EF) approach. EF clearly states that data collected by individuals must be anonymous and should never be used to judge them.

The core values promoted by the EF for establishing a sharing culture are based on the fundamentals of learning. In order to improve, employees need to learn from past experience, and in order for employees to learn, the organization needs to create a learning environment. The characteristics of a learning environment are that it is allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. Experience is not hidden or traded, but freely given to the employee who needs it. Experience is collected, not in order to replace, degrade or evaluate people, but in order to help them (e.g., help them remember; help them collaborate; and help them organize, spread and share data, information, knowledge, and experience). People are encouraged to share experience and help others, and are rewarded based on how much they share.

Learning and improvement can only occur in an environment where it is possible to obtain feedback about the outcome of various activities. A learning organization creates feedback loops on several levels and the design of the experience management system must allow, and even enforce, feeding data back to the system. An example of feedback loops is an honest dialogue between employees in the organization. Another way of creating feedback loops is the principle of iteration, i.e., the work is iterated and improved in steps. Iteration also facilitates removing defects early in the lifecycle.

An example of EF implementation can be found at Fraunhofer Center For Experimental Software Engineering, Maryland (FC-MD). FC-MD has implemented the EF in order to leverage its employees’ knowledge and experience. FC-MD uses several strategies to set the right culture in order to encourage employees to share and use knowledge and experience. The first strategy was to establish corporate core values that explicitly address and support the core values of an experience factory. Another strategy is to weave experience-related activities into the regular work process and leverage what employees are already doing. One example of such activities is the project presentation, where project managers actively collect experiences and present them to the rest of the organization. The project presentation is packaged in a way that helps new employees learn about projects and facilitates project analysis. In order to show that management supports these activities, a special project account has been set up to which employees charge all activities related to the experience base, so that these activities do not increase the cost of their current projects. Employees’ contribution to this initiative and to the experience base is a criterion for the individual annual performance evaluation.

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