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"Conversation. What is it? A Mystery! It's the art of never seeming bored, of touching everything with interest, of pleasing with trifles, of being fascinating with nothing at all. How do we define this lively darting about with words, of hitting them back and forth, this sort of brief smile of ideas which should be conversation?" Guy de Maupassant

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Revisiting Knowledge Management - Presence, Communication, Collaboration = FLOW

Rajesh and I have been speaking to a company in India which has several offices and branches across the country and internationally too, to ramp up their intranet to make it more effective.  It is interesting to examine what an 'effective' KM system is first.  And that somehow evolved over several meetings with employees there.  Will try and explain this some more.

We first approached the company with the thought of getting them to blog - both for internal and external communications.  They had not heard of blogs, and although curious, it did not get them really excited, as a stand-alone product.  Then we took a step back - and tried to really pin down what they required in the short term and in the longer term. 

We examined the current KM system they have in place - they've spent vast amounts of money on it - yet it seemed so archaic.  Effectively really an archiving system or library of sorts; where most of the documentation has been done by a centralised resource - leaving me wondering how accurate it might be, if the people involved in the specific projects archived, have not been part of the setting up of the library.  Huge archives - that suck up all the bandwidth, making the system painfully slow to navigate.

To give it some credit, there are individual pages for employees - where they have the liberty to put in stuff about themselves apart from their work proficiencies, and form clubs of sorts.  We observed, very few had.  Low motivation perhaps, not made any easier by the complete absence of features encouraging reciprocity and flow.  

One thought that both Rajesh and i had is .... white elephant  !

We also asked the question - what is the dream system you desire - and that was really interesting.  What it revealed is the need is not as much for a Content Management System as much as it is for a system that allows them to dialogue and converse effortlessly and seamlessly, brainstorm on ideas and projects, in a manner that is as 'face-to-face' as possible. Here's the gist of what an employee told us :

I know X is not here in my office (in Mumbai) but in another city.  I want to be able to talk to her, as if she's in the same room as me.  I want to be able to feel all the nuances in talking with her - its got to be touchy-feely and not a cold email or a phone call where i know the time ticking away means my bottomline suffers.     

Underlying what this employee told us is her desire for flow. Easy, hassle-free, inexpensive flow.  Flow that allows a dialogue as if the other person is right there with her.   

Incorporating :

  • Presence indicators
  • Communications system
  • Collaboration space

One of the key requirements - really a very simple one to have, but something so sorely left out in the current system, is a presence indicator.  Much like in current IM systems - telling us who's available, who's logged in and therefore present in the office, who i can ping for a query, and ensuring that a response is received.  In the case of this organisation, currently, they'd send an email, wait for a response, followed by more emails as reminders, and finally in sheer frustration, pick up the phone and make a call - which can be expensive if outstation (as is the case very often in their line of business) and does not always ensure that they will get a response - what if the person is away from the office?  See this interesting article in PCWorld - IM Emerges From the Shadows, for how some companies are learning to benefit from IM systems.

Tied into this requirement for presence indicators is the need for 'real-time' 'live' communication.  This is where voice applications, small cam shows, conferencing facilities would be useful.  Skype with its conferencing facilities has really shown its possible to do this with terrific quality.  Combine this with some of the 'soft profiles' that make a person far more approachable than just another colleague, like those on Ryze or Orkut.  Jack Schofield, writing for The Guardian says in an article on social networks today : "on an intranet, Orkut would make a pretty good corporate address book and messaging system, with a bit of built-in group conferencing" 

And finally the need for collaboration spaces - where one can play around with Wikis and Blogs.  Not having to rely on a whole host of asynchronous emails  - or bothering to archive them systematically - these tools can do that automatically for you. And more food for thought pinging its way in through RSS in Newsreaders. 

Picture this scenario - you have a project on and are racking your brains about how to approach it - you check your presence indicator - see who's available - ping them with a request for conferencing - hitch up the webcam, enable voice - and bingo - in minutes you have a virtual team !  Record the conversation, take notes on the wiki, synthesize it in a team blog which has comments enabled, feed in current thinking on the topic from your newsaggregator, and you have real flow.  And, ridiculously easy group-forming to borrow a wonderful phrase from Clay Shirky.  

Next stages - more brainstorming with employees at different levels to get their visions of a 'dream system'.  Then onto prototyping a solution !

I'm not sure this fits into traditional definitions of Knowledge Management ( i really dislike the term) - i wish someone would coin a really neat term for it. 

(I just spoke to the client and asked her if its ok to blog this - and she was quite happy to let me - and showed keenness on knowing whether other organisations have these requirements too and face such problems with their current KM systems.) 

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