Knowledge management portals have gone in and out of style over the years. Portals were the rage back in the early 90’s, promising the “integration at the glass” that organizations were looking for in order to make sense of disparate information and to present users with content based on their role and requirements. Executives could have operational dashboards, marketers could have collaboration tools integrated with analytics, and front line employees could get their work done faster and more efficiently. The knowledge management portal would provide the outcomes that everyone wanted.
Of course it’s never that easy – integrations at that time were brittle and costly, and the diversity of information sources made it difficult to deal with role-based access. Getting the right information in front of the right people at the right time remained that elusive KM goal.
Keeping up with Change is Hard
The primary reason for the difficulty in making information sources easier to access lies in the underlying structures of corporate content and data. Business activities change faster than the IT group can support, and constant evolution of user needs meant an ever-shifting target. Organizational maturity was very low in areas such as information curation and architecture, and tools were still evolving.
The picture improved with faster clock speeds and lower-friction information processes. What was initially a competitive advantage for early adopters, who made large investments in technology and application development, soon became the price of admission in many industries with an arms race in capabilities quickly wiping out earlier advantages. Add to this the expanding infrastructure, and soon the investments that had yielded a return became a cost center to keep the lights on. In fact, the technology stacks of some organizations are so complex that most of the budget is spent just keeping the lights on, with little left over for innovation or development of new capability.
Not only is keeping the lights on not a competitive advantage, but the complexity and cost of these infrastructures keeps organizations from maturing in certain areas and will impede future growth and adaptability. We are seeing that impact now with multichannel experience and integrated digital marketing capabilities. Organizations are weighed down with legacy technologies, and cannot add new capabilities without a huge rip-and-replace project.
Easy Access to Bad Data isn’t an Improvement
Another issue that prevented knowledge management portals from achieving greater success was the fact that the underlying content processes lacked curation and quality. Many years ago, one client was sold portal software by a large software vendor. The idea was to overlay this complex, costly technology onto the client’s information, but the information was a mess. The salesperson told the client that portal software would solve their problems. Although the promises of salespeople are always regarded with skepticism, this particular portal software was new, and was getting a lot of marketing and attention. The industry reception and analyst community response were good so the client went ahead and bought the software.
The state of technology at that time was based on connectors and exposing applications from a diverse range of tools. However, the underlying assumption was that the information from these tools was of good quality. The implementation failed because the organization did not address the underlying information quality issues and deployed a very agile, adaptable interface to handle really bad data. The client was successful in exposing poor quality information much more quickly than they had been able to in the past, but that did not help users solve their problems.
Metadata to the Rescue
Current technology offers some major advances, including the ability to tag and categorize content and integrate different data sources through search applications and search connectors. People need to search for information, and search-based knowledge portals provide a great deal of functionality and faster integration of knowledge sources. Knowledge managemen portals provide ready access to people, expertise, communities, collaborative content, structured data and rich media such as images and video.
The underlying content still needs to be curated; however, search applications can help to remediate data hygiene issues. For example, many organizations have not implemented consistent approaches to applying metadata. This can be remedied by using an information architecture that considers the various business terminologies around products, services, offerings, document types, geographies, business units, and other relevant concepts. When those vocabularies are configured in the search tool, documents and content can be automatically tagged with appropriate metadata. This metadata can then be used for filtering, categorization, sorting, and surfacing specific subsets of information in the context of a user task or process.
Search-based knowledge management portals enable users to discover and retrieve information to support their business objectives. When people know what they want, they search in order to retrieve information. When they don’t know what they want, they browse in order to discover new information. A knowledge management portal with the correct information architecture allows users to both search and browse – to retrieve and discover – changing modes back and forth in the same session. Retrieval can be followed by browsing, which can be facilitated by faceted navigation, related concept search, and knowledge graph browsing. This last approach leverages the structure derived through auto-tagging of content that allows users to follow their line of thinking by using data relationships to locate and discover information.
The Social Connection
Think about how Facebook allows locating friends with similar interests, then seeing what college they went to, then finding people who went to your college, locating additional friends and discovering where they worked, and then locating colleagues at those companies. The same approach can be used for knowledge objects – locating proposals, plans, strategies, market reports and research, sales plans, policies, procedures, and other knowledge artifacts that are linked together through common metadata. Applied Materials’ knowledge portal allowed field engineers to locate part information by searching and then retrieving safety content, manuals, troubleshooting information, photos, schematics, discussions, experts, diagrams, stock availability, as-built plans, and other necessary information that resided in over a dozen different systems. What brought all of these important pieces of content and data together was the search-driven knowledge portal with all of the information sources integrated with a common information architecture and taxonomy.
It Comes Back to This
Knowledge management portals will continue to evolve with machine learning, natural language processing, and social collaboration integration. The path to these future applications still begins with an enterprise architecture that underlies all of the data and content that people need to do their jobs.