By the fall of 2005, the European investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein (DrKW) had just completed a rollout of three new communication technologies to most of its employees. The tools — which included blogs, wikis and messaging software for groups and individuals — caught on first among IT staffers, who soon realized that the initial wiki environment lacked a feature called presence display. That is, it didn’t offer a way to tell if another employee was at his or her computer. At 10:44 London time on Oct. 11, 2005, an IT employee posted to his blog:

… it’s about squeezing as much as we can out of what we have in place now … The [presence display] idea for example can be achieved with ease [in the wiki] by simply adding the link below to an image tag … It’s a bit rough round the edges and the icon could be much better but does do what you want.

At 11:48, a colleague posted a comment on the same blog:

Cool, I have then taken your [link] and (pretty nastily) hacked presence display into [the wiki]. I’ll let Myrto [Lazopoulou, head of user-centered design at DrKW] know … and ask her to look into perhaps getting her team [to see] whether we can do this better …

Within 64 minutes and without any project definition or planning, a presence display solution had been spontaneously taken from concept to implementation, then submitted to the person formally responsible.

Why are these new technologies particularly noteworthy? After all, companies already have plenty of communication media — e-mail, instant messaging, intranets, telephones, software for document sharing and knowledge management and so on. As the vignette above suggests, the new technologies are significant because they can potentially knit together an enterprise and facilitate knowledge work in ways that were simply not possible previously. To see how, we need to first understand the shortcomings of the technologies currently used by knowledge workers, then examine how the newly available technologies address these drawbacks. We’ll then return to the DrKW case to see how to accelerate their use within an enterprise, and highlight the challenges of doing so.

Most of the information technologies that knowledge workers currently use for communication fall into two categories. The first comprises channels — such as e-mail and person-to-person instant messaging — where digital information can be created and distributed by anyone, but the degree of commonality of this information is low (even if everyone’s e-mail sits on the same server, it’s only viewable by the few people who are part of the thread). The second category includes platforms like intranets, corporate Web sites and information portals. These are, in a way, the opposite of channels in that their content is generated, or at least approved, by a small group, but then is widely visible — production is centralized, and commonality is high.

Knowledge management systems have tried to have it both ways. They have sought to elicit tacit knowledge, best practices and relevant experience from people throughout a company and put this information in a widely available database. It seems appropriate now, however, to refer to KM systems in the past tense; they didn’t even show up in a recently published (2005) survey of the media used by knowledge workers. (See “Communication Technologies Used by Knowledge Workers.”)

This survey, conducted by knowledge researcher Thomas Davenport, shows that channels are used more than platforms, but this is to be expected. Knowledge workers are paid to produce, not to browse the intranet, so it makes sense for them to heavily use the tools that let them generate information. So what’s wrong with the status quo?

One problem is that many users aren’t happy with the channels and platforms available to them. Davenport found that while all knowledge workers surveyed used e-mail, 26% felt it was overused in their organizations, 21% felt overwhelmed by it and 15% felt that it actually diminished their productivity. In a survey by Forrester Research, only 44% of respondents agreed that it was easy to find what they were looking for on their intranet.

A second, more fundamental problem is that current technologies for knowledge workers aren’t doing a good job of capturing their knowledge. As Davenport puts it, “The dream … that knowledge itself — typically unstructured, textual knowledge — could be easily captured, shared, and applied to knowledge work … [has not] been fully realized … Progress is being made … [but] it’s taken much longer than anyone expected.”

In the practice of doing their jobs, knowledge workers use channels all the time and frequently visit both internal and external platforms (intranet and Internet). The channels, however, can’t be accessed or searched by anyone else, and visits to platforms leave no traces. Furthermore, only a small percentage of most people’s output winds up on a common platform. Thus, the channels and platforms in use aren’t much good at providing answers to such questions as: What’s the right way to approach this analysis? Does a template exist for it? Who’s working on a similar problem right now? When our Brazilian operation reorganized last year, who were the key people? What are the hot topics in our R&D department these days? Indeed, it’s probably safe to say that within most companies most knowledge work practices and output are invisible to most people. The good news is that new platforms have appeared that focus not on capturing knowledge itself, but rather on the practices and output of knowledge workers.

Enterprise 2.0 Technologies: Blank SLATES

These new digital platforms for generating, sharing and refining information are already popular on the Internet, where they’re collectively labeled “Web 2.0” technologies. I use the term “Enterprise 2.0” to focus only on those platforms that companies can buy or build in order to make visible the practices and outputs of their knowledge workers. (See About the Research) The excerpts from the DrKW blogs, for example, record an interaction and its output, as well as the identities of three people involved. These blog entries are part of a platform that’s readable by anyone in the company, and they’re persistent. They make an episode of knowledge work widely and permanently visible.

Technology paradigms are often made up of several components. For example, the components of Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointers (mice) combine to yield the WIMP user interface of most personal computers today. Similarly, I use the acronym SLATES to indicate the six components of Enterprise 2.0 technologies:

Search For any information platform to be valuable, its users must be able to find what they are looking for. Intranet page layouts and navigation aids can help with this, but users are increasingly bypassing these in favor of keyword searches. It might seem that orderly intranets maintained by a professional staff would be easier to search than the huge, dynamic, uncoordinated Internet, but this is not the case.

In the Forrester survey, less than half of respondents reported that it was easy for them to find what they were looking for on their intranets. A 2005 study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, on the other hand, found that 87% of Internet searchers report having successful search experiences most of the time. The second element in the SLATES infrastructure helps explain this surprising difference.

Links Google made a huge leap forward in Internet search quality by taking advantage of the information contained in links between Web pages. Links are an excellent guide to what’s important and provide structure to online content. In this structure, the “best” pages are the ones that are most frequently linked to.

Search technology like Google’s works best when there’s a dense link structure that changes over time and reflects the opinions of many people. This is the case on the Internet, but not on most of today’s intranets, where links are made only by the relatively small internal Web development group. In order for this to change within companies, many people have to be given the ability to build links. The most straightforward way to accomplish this is to let the intranet be built by a large group rather than a small one.

Authoring Internet blogs and Wikipedia have shown that many people have a desire to author — to write for a broad audience. As wiki inventor Ward Cunningham recalls, “I wanted to stroke that story-telling nature in all of us … I wanted people who wouldn’t normally author to find it comfortable authoring, so that there stood a chance of us discovering the structure of what they had to say.” Cunningham’s point is not that there are a lot of undiscovered Shakespeares out there but that most people have something to contribute, whether it’s knowledge, insight, experience, a comment, a fact, an edit, a link, and so on, and authorship is a way to elicit these contributions.

Blogs let people author individually, and wikis enable group authorship. Content on blogs is cumulative (individual posts and responses to them accumulate over time), while on wikis it’s iterative (people undo and redo each other’s work). When authoring tools are deployed and used within a company, the intranet platform shifts from being the creation of a few to being the constantly updated, interlinked work of many.

Evidence from Wikipedia shows that group authorship can lead to convergent, high-quality content. This seems paradoxical. How can an egalitarian, editor-free authoring environment ever yield consensus and agreement? Won’t people who disagree just keep disagreeing? (To understand why not, see “Convergence and Quality on Wikipedia.”)

Tags The Forrester survey revealed that after better searching mechanisms, what experienced users wanted most from their companies’ intranets was better categorization of content. Some sites on the Web aggregate large amounts of content, then outsource the work of categorization to their users by letting them attach tags —simple, one-word descriptions. These sites — such as Flickr for photos, Technorati for blogs and del.icio.us for Web site bookmarks — don’t try to impose an up-front categorization scheme; they instead let one emerge over time as a result of users’ actions.

The categorization system that emerges from tagging is called a folksonomy (a categorization system developed over time by folks). A folksonomy is in some ways the opposite of a taxonomy, which is an up-front categorization scheme developed by an expert. Folksonomies have some disadvantages relative to taxonomies: They’re not usually multilevel, for one thing, and they can be redundant. Their main advantage is that they reflect the information structures and relationships that people actually use, instead of the ones that were planned for them in advance. (For an example of how this works, see “Tags and Folksonomies at del.icio.us.”)

In addition to building folksonomies, tags provide a way to keep track of the platforms visited by knowledge workers. Imagine a tool like del.icio.us deployed within an enterprise. Employees could use it to keep track of useful intranet and Internet pages they’ve consulted, and to assign tags to these pages as reminders of content. They also could see which other employees are using the same tags, and what sites they’ve visited. As a result, patterns and processes in knowledge work would become more visible.

Extensions Moderately “smart” computers take tagging one step further by automating some of the work of categorization and pattern matching. They use algorithms to say to users, “If you liked that, then by extension you’ll like this.” Amazon’s recommendations were an early example of the use of extensions on the Web.

To see another example, download the browser toolbar available from stumbleupon.com. With it, users simply select a topic they’re interested in, then click the “stumble” button. They’re taken to a Web site on that topic. If they like it, they click a “thumbs-up” button on the toolbar; if not, they click a “thumbs-down” button. They then “stumble” on to another site. Over time, StumbleUpon matches preferences to send users only to sites they’ll like. It’s surprising how quickly, and how well, this simple system works. It reasons by extension, and homes in on user tastes with great speed.

Signals Even with powerful tools to search and categorize platform content, a user can easily feel overwhelmed. New content is added so often that it can become a full-time job just to check for updates on all sites of interest. The final element of the SLATES infrastructure is technology to signal users when new content of interest appears. Signals can come as e-mail alerts, but these contribute to overloaded inboxes and may be treated like spam.

A novel technology called RSS (which usually refers to “really simple syndication”) provides another solution. Authors such as bloggers use RSS to generate a short notice each time they add new content. The notice usually consists of a headline that is also a link back to the full content. Software for users called “aggregators” periodically queries sites of interest for new notices, downloads them, puts them in order and displays their headlines. With RSS, users no longer have to surf constantly to check for changes; they instead simply consult their aggregators, click on headlines of interest and are taken to the new content.

Enterprise 2.0 Ground Rules

As technologists build Enterprise 2.0 technologies that incorporate the SLATES components, they seem to be following two intelligent ground rules. First, they’re making sure their offerings are easy to use. With current tools, authoring, linking and tagging all can be done with nothing more than a Web browser, a few clicks and some typing. No HTML skills are required. It seems reasonable to assume that anyone who can compose e-mail and search the Web can use all of the technologies described in this article with little or no training.

Second, the technologists of Enterprise 2.0 are trying hard not to impose on users any preconceived notions about how work should proceed or how output should be categorized or structured. Instead, they’re building tools that let these aspects of knowledge work emerge.

This is a profound shift. Most current platforms, such as knowledge management systems, information portals, intranets and workflow applications, are highly structured from the start, and users have little opportunity to influence this structure. Wiki inventor Cunningham highlights an important shortcoming of this approach: “For questions like ‘What’s going on in the project?’ we could design a database. But whatever fields we put in the database would turn out to be what’s not important about what’s going on in the project. What’s important about the project is the stuff that you don’t anticipate.”

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