Preserving knowledge

Sandia National Laboratories has developed a new system for preserving one of the most important assets for an organization involved in national security: institutional knowledge.

The system, described as a digital content management solution, makes it possible for Sandia to digitize and store several years' worth of videotaped interviews with outgoing employees, indexing them so new employees can quickly find the information they need.

Institutional knowledge is vital for Sandia, an Energy Department national security laboratory with sites in New Mexico and California. As part of its work, Sandia operates a training program for scientists and engineers who design, assemble and manage nuclear weapons. The lab cannot afford to lose such knowledge when people retire.

Sandia officials took the first step toward knowledge management several years ago when they began to videotape conversations with many of their retired and soon-to-be-retired nuclear weapons engineers. The goal was to let future engineers and scientists see and hear the specialists' own words on the systems and technologies that were developed to resolve complex problems, said John Tissler, Sandia's knowledge preservation project leader.

But that got Sandia only part of the way there because there was no quick way for new employees to locate the information they wanted. The new digitized system fixes that because it makes it easy to index the video. It's like the difference between scanning the pages of a book for a piece of information and using an index in the back of the book to narrow the search to a handful of pages.

"What we're conceivably creating is a virtual library where an individual can quickly find information electronically as opposed to spending several hours, or days, thumbing through textbooks, test reports or videotapes," Tissler said. "Forty hours of tape equals 40 hours of work unless you can go directly to what you're after."

Sandia is using Convera's Screening Room software to digitize, index and store its videotape archives so that authorized users can access the video content online, isolate the information they seek in a matter of minutes and view relevant video footage, all from their desktop computers. The tool provides scalable access to any video asset (analog or digital) from any Web browser.

The video library is growing daily. Tissler said the lab has videotaped and indexed interviews with about 120 retirees. The library also features about 50 tapes of symposiums and panel discussions on various topics, as well as classes for Sandia's intern program, which prepares young engineers to become experts in certain areas.

"It's over 2,000 hours of tapes, specifically created as part of this proj.ect," and that doesn't include some older tests and tapes that employees had a hard time playing because the technology was outdated, he said. "We had a problem finding machinery to play the tapes.... It was like trying to play 8-tracks."

Previously, users had to travel to a central videotape library, pull the tapes they hoped contained the necessary information, then spend hours manually sorting through them, said Ben Plummer, senior vice president of marketing at Vienna, Va.-based Convera.

Tissler said Sandia officials chose Screening Room for two key reasons: they were already using the company's RetrievalWare solution for advanced text search and retrieval, and Convera was willing to help meet Sandia's ongoing needs in future versions of the product.

"The product meets everyone's needs to a satisfactory extent," Tissler said. "But Convera was very willing to help us with the 20 percent [that users] were not achieving by considering our [requests] in their system upgrades."

One area that needs immediate improvement is security, because much of Sandia's classified information is compartmentalized with specific clearances for different individuals, Tissler said. "Our biggest problem is security on a need-to-know basis."

And Convera is on the case. "Security is a huge issue because [users] want to access content outside the firewall," Plummer said.

At present, because Screening Room relies on the base operating system for security features, customers can only grant or deny access to particular users or files. But the next version of the product, due out by end of the year, will enable customers to control access to particular elements of a file, so that Sandia can block classified material.

Convera is also forming partner/ customer councils—which will include Sandia, NASA's Johnson Space Center, the U.S. Geological Survey and other users—to help drive future requirements. "We're partnering with some of our key customers on leading-edge requirements to make sure they're met," Plummer said.

Tissler said the only other thing that he would improve about Screening Room is its voice-recognition capabilities, but he said that's not Convera's fault because the technology simply hasn't evolved yet. People with different accents or speaking at varying speeds will throw off the voice-recognition feature, so Sandia has each tape transcribed word for word and makes that text searchable using RetrievalWare.

"We want to take it to the next level and get as close to a potential question someone has as possible," as quickly as possible, Tissler said.

Ramon Barquin, president of Barquin and Associates Inc., an information technology consulting firm specializing in knowledge management, said technology has some value in helping fill a gap when employees leave or are replaced, but only if used with a lot of thought.

"Technology can play a very important role in helping to bridge generations of experts, but it is not the most important factor involved in the sharing of knowledge," Barquin said. "It has to be the right kind of technology that is pulled by people. It can't just be pushed by technologists."


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