From data management to knowledge management

Re-engineering in federal agencies has taught information technology managers that their burgeoning data sources are worth more to users when linked together. Now the search has begun for software that can help them turn databases, World Wide Web sites, library materials, policy memos— even data about the expertise of agency employees— into more than bits in a machine.

Their quest is to turn information into knowledge; to gather, sort and present agencies' collected intelligence in a way that makes it easier for people to understand it, share it and use it to make decisions. The applications that have been developed range from sophisticated visualization tools for analyzing raw intelligence information to interactive Web sites that help the public learn about federal regulations.

These IT managers are wading into what the software industry is touting as the next wave of software applications: knowledge management tools. However, what constitutes a knowledge management product is ill-defined. The term is more of a marketing buzzword than a description of any specific type of software.

Instead, agencies are devising new applications by integrating familiar technologies. These include search engines, push technology, expert systems, groupware, workflow, document management and databases. These systems can be put together and used as knowledge management tools.

"Our view of knowledge management has to do with tying information into key business processes,'' said Mark Salser, vice president of advanced technology solutions at Oracle Consulting, whose database products include components for thematic indexing of information and gateways into multiple data repositories. "Until you've wrapped [data] into some key business process, it's not knowledge management.''

Despite the diversity in applications, the knowledge management systems that agencies have created so far do have some typical elements, including:

* A widely available interface. Whether it's a Web browser or a groupware application that is available to every user, "the idea of ubiquitous access— however that works in a business or in the governmental sector— that's the key,'' said Richard Luce, director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory Research Library.

* Search engines. Along with data repositories, these are "the beginning point,'' said Connie Moore, vice president with Giga Information Group. Most important, she said, is "having ways of finding content that are above and beyond word searches,'' including context-based searching and the ability to find images.

* Analysis tools. These tools range from profiling and filtering features to software that sorts and ranks documents according to their relevance. Found as part of search engines, or paired with them, such capabilities are necessary to tailor information for individual users and to screen out files they don't want. "One of the issues that always comes up is a way of rating the information that's there,'' said Chip Bumgardner, chief technical officer at BTG Inc. "How do we know whether it's good information or bad information or totally bogus?'

'Nathaniel Palmer, senior consultant at Delphi Consulting Group, said conventional applications become knowledge management applications when there are "some rules about how that information [contained in them] should come together.''

"Knowledge management is a concept,'' said James Watson, senior research analyst with Doculabs, a Chicago-based consulting firm that recently completed a comparison of some products that are being marketed as knowledge management tools. "A basic taxonomy of what you want this technology to do for you is helpful [in order] to figure out your needs. There's likely to be a great discrepancy between the conceptual-level sale and reality.''

Furthermore, said Susan Hanley, director of knowledge management initiatives with integrator American Management Systems Inc., deploying the tools means little unless employees who own information in an organization agree to share it with others. AMS has built systems in-house that contain information about the expertise of its own employees in order to foster partnerships across the company.

It is collaboration, real or virtual, that most agencies want to facilitate when they decide to build a knowledge management system. What IT managers are looking for when they pursue such applications is technology that will allow them to collect, sort and distribute information from disparate sources and let users share and refine it.

"The example I like to use is the corporation that sends 10 to 15 people off to one conference,'' Luce said. Individuals might return and write memos about what they learned to supervisors or their departments, but "that expertise is never collectively put together in a way others can mine the system.'' So Luce's staff has pieced together a knowledge management application that it uses for strategic planning.

Other agencies, such as the Air Force Research Laboratory/Phillips Research Site Library, located at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., are tackling similar issues.

Before the Phillips Research Site Library began fielding the Automated Library Information Virtual Environment four years ago, scientists had to "search through card catalogs, and they [had] to make tons of copies,'' said Kandy Thorn, a technical information specialist there. Today a Web-based card catalog links multiple databases of research materials, allowing users to perform more accurate searches and retrieve documents electronically.

The latest upgrade to the $3 million system, which was completed in March, is based on RetrievalWare, a search engine from Excalibur Technologies Corp., Vienna, Va. RetrievalWare offers pattern-recognition software that allows users to search for the context of key words or phrases, and it automatically profiles users based on their queries.

In similar fashion, the U.S. Atlantic Command, which is responsible for training and integrating U.S.-based forces for military operations worldwide, has developed a classified Web site called USACOM Knowledge Today to give top officers a way to share information and collaborate on projects.

"The mission of our organization is knowledge management,'' said Lt. Col. Michael Dorohovich, a special assistant in the U.S. Atlantic Command's Decision Processes Division.

USACOM Knowledge Today provides daily updates of news, meetings, official actions, policies, best practices and related information tailored for authorized users.

"It puts people together that are working on similar ideas,'' said Bob Lewis, program manager with Logicon Inc., which built the application using Domino, a Web server from Lotus Development Corp. that is designed for groupware applications. Users "can have a real-time or asynchronous discussion, and they have a mild form of push technology that, in a command structure, allows them to get out information very quickly and effectively.'

'When Congress passed the Small Business Regulatory Enforcement Fairness Act last year demanding that federal agencies help companies comply with federal regulations, the Labor Department built an interactive Web site to provide "plain English'' information about federal employment laws.

Employment Laws Assistance for Workers and Small Businesses, which now covers 11 out of an eventual 180 of these laws, leads users through multiple-choice questionnaires on which they can define complex queries.

"Over the years we've developed these compliance-assistance materials,'' said Roland Droitsch, deputy assistant secretary for policy with Labor. "They never were really pitched to the right person and would never actually answer the question'' an individual had.

The application, which has cost about $1 million so far, is based on a decision modeling tool called ReSolver, from MultiLogic Inc., St. Paul, Minn. System designers asked labor law experts to "come up with every possible question and every possible answer'' and mapped their knowledge into an electronic decision tree, said Karen Vaughn, a consultant on the project.

Fuzzy MarketIt is not clear yet whether knowledge management tools will evolve as a distinct set of products.

"There is no knowledge management in a box,'' warned Stephen Offsey, director for knowledge management products at Dataware Technologies Inc., which introduced its Dataware II Knowledge Management Suite last fall. The software allows users to link multiple data repositories, categorize their contents and generate lists of an organization's "experts'' that are based on the types of documents they have created.

Many vendors of document management, workflow, groupware, and search and push software are beginning to introduce the essential analysis tools as part of recent or upcoming product upgrades. Gerry Murray, senior analyst for electronic workplace technologies at International Data Corp., said, "No one vendor, no one category of technology, is going to be able to provide knowledge management to a customer.''

"If you talk to any vendor, they'll say they're a knowledge management vendor,'' said Priscilla Emery, senior vice president for information products and services at the Association for Information and Image Management, whose members include many of the companies that are repositioning themselves as knowledge management firms.

Whether that is really true is "more of a subjective thing. There still needs to be a lot more sophistication in terms of each one of the different components for a truly effective knowledge management system,'' Emery said.

***At a Glance

Status: Knowledge management applications are emerging as organizations look for more systematic ways to gather and share information and promote collaboration among employees.

Issues: Although many vendors advertise knowledge management tools, there are no shrink-wrapped solutions. The term "knowledge management" is mainly a new marketing buzzword for combinations of familiar technologies.

Outlook: Good. Vendors are starting to develop software to help customers integrate existing data collection, analysis and distribution technologies.

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