In the know
- By Heather Havenstein
- Apr 14, 2003
Compared with the knowledge management systems that government agencies are now starting to field, the systems of even a few years ago don't seem quite so smart anymore. Those earlier systems — often little more than glorified search engines — are being replaced by far more sophisticated knowledge management solutions that can tap into more of an agency's information and employee expertise and, for the first time, actually create new knowledge.
And as the breadth of information folded into knowledge management systems widens, so too does the lineup of workers — from first responders to program managers — who are benefiting from these increasingly powerful and easy-to-use systems. More than ever, knowledge management systems are playing a key role in many mission-critical government tasks.
Hurdles remain, however, such as concerns about information security and the cultural changes that are often involved in getting employees to use knowledge management systems. Nevertheless, a better understanding of what the tools can and can't do and how people create, share and use information is fueling government use of knowledge management technology.
Best-of-breed solutions offering focused knowledge management capabilities have never been more widely available. And knowledge management vendors have been busy beefing up their offerings with new features designed to give customers more bang for their buck.
Content management players such as Verity Inc., Autonomy Corp., Stratify Inc., Hummingbird Ltd. and Convera — whose tools usually make up the core components of a knowledge management system — are offering enterprise solutions with a much broader set of capabilities, such as organizing distributed content, personalizing information and providing federated searches that can reach across multiple data sources.
Verity's K2 Enterprise software, for example, is designed to connect information stored in a number of common business applications, such as enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management systems. K2 Enterprise's search and classification engine puts all that enterprise content into context so that it's searchable with a single query and can be browsed via a common taxonomy, which is like a giant topic directory that links to the underlying information.
The Verity software also features a social network tier that analyzes user searches and then links users to related communities of interest or online user groups united by common interests from across the enterprise.
At a technical level, K2 Enterprise uses software brokers — small programs that perform automated tasks — to distribute single queries to multiple servers. That helps the system accommodate growth without degrading performance.
The scalability of K2 Enterprise was particularly attractive to Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is using the software to provide secure, advanced search capabilities of more than 32 million Extensible Markup Language Web documents to approximately 12,000 users of its digital research library. Officials expect the number of XML documents available via the library to double in a few months, said Richard Luce, director of Los Alamos' research library in Los Alamos, N.M.
"We give people a very customized and focused view of the data," Luce said. "We do analysis of user activity to be able to suggest or recommend to them what would be on target, given their research or how they have expressed their interest."
In coming months, Los Alamos will begin using the Verity software to enable users to perform federated searches, tying together research reports produced by various organizations.
Looking ahead, the next generation of content management technology will allow agencies to perform critical "entity extraction," according to Prabhakar Raghavan, Verity's chief technology officer. This involves extracting more structure from unstructured content via data mining algorithms and statistical analysis, he said.
Such a feature will be crucial for intelligence and law enforcement agencies that need to extract the most important information from far-flung information repositories, such as news feeds and databases, instead of simply classifying and routing massive piles of data to the correct person.
For example, entity extraction would be able to tie together a database in Puerto Rico that lists associates of Osama bin Laden with a news feed that lists those same people arriving in Australia and with Australian immigration records. "We've taken this news story and added structure in place of the unstructured content," Raghavan said. "Here are four people connected to Osama who have converged on the same city."
Enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management are not the only enterprise applications being pulled into the knowledge management fold. Agencies are now also using existing e-learning and skills management systems to link employee skills data with other data to create first- response readiness systems.
Knowledge and workforce management vendor mGen Inc., based in Foxborough, Mass., is scheduled to roll out its new readiness system this month. It will allow organizations to quickly identify and rank first-responder personnel who have certain training for possible rapid deployment in a fast- developing situation or to work on a special project team.
For example, the Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, working with the Justice Department, is using mGen's integrated Web-based knowledge management system to develop an incident command system for animal diseases. The system will deliver and track training to veterinarians on animal diseases.
Expertise tracking "would work very well in a government setting where there is a large population of personnel with a loosely defined reporting structure and high movement within the organization but with needs to not only share and collaborate but to also maintain a consistency in the types of answers provided," said Carl Frappaolo, executive vice president and co-founder of the Delphi Group in Boston.
Many agency officials also are eyeing online collaboration software from vendors such as Hyperwave, Open Text Corp., IBM Corp., Documentum Inc. and Intraspect Software Inc. to further take advantage of their existing investments in content and document management systems and desktop applications.
Building on the information retrieval and search layer of its three-tiered architecture, Open Text's Livelink is designed to provide integrated document management and collaboration tools directly to user desktop applications such as Microsoft Corp. Outlook.
"Working from within the desktop, users can pull from existing information...learn from it and put more information and value back into the system," said Campbell Robertson, director of government solutions for Waterloo, Ontario-based Open Text.
For example, by using a catalog of policy development best practices that has been entered into the knowledge management system, a program manager can tweak a business process or workflow to minimize the costs associated with deploying a new government program, according to Robertson.
The Air Force's Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., is using Livelink to connect online collaboration tools with a document management system for air traffic and surveillance targeting programs. Livelink provides version control and automatic notification of changes for analytical briefings detailing various military options, said Jolanta Stachowicz, the center's knowledge management program manager.
"The briefings go up through the staff chain to get approval," she said. "Checking documents into a particular folder through the Web...avails the knowledge of where they stand in the chain of events for the final version."
Last but certainly not least, Web portals — built with software from Plumtree Software Inc., Autonomy, IBM and BroadVision Inc. — often are the linchpin for knowledge management collaborative efforts, providing browser-based access to documents, training data, threaded discussions, online chats and other information.
Some vendors, such as Vienna, Va.-based Appian Corp., are pushing the personalization envelope by automatically sending information to users instead of relying on them to search for it. For example, 50 soldiers were notified via the Army Knowledge Online portal built on Appian's enterprise portal that they were lacking immunizations needed before they could be deployed to the Persian Gulf, said Matt Calkins, Appian's president and chief executive officer.
" The next-generation challenge for knowledge management is to try to harness this existing intelligence within employees about where info ought to go, what it means and for whom it is valuable," he said.
In other words, it's about having a computer take stock of who knows what and then figuring out who else might need to know. n
Havenstein is a freelance writer based in Cary, N.C.