Bringing People Together—It Takes More Than an Intranet

There is a considerable amount of interest of late in "collaborative working" and "communities of practice." I have a sense that, in many organizations, these terms are the acceptable face of Knowledge Management! KM does seem to have fallen from grace and I have to admit that I have a problem with Knowledge Management as a discipline, and am much happier talking about knowledge exchange. The scale of adoption of communities of practice in many organizations is quite breathtaking.

The justification for an intranet is often that it will facilitate the exchange of knowledge within the organization, but in reality the benefits are rarely on the anticipated scale. There are two reasons for this: The first is that the culture of the organization, or even of a specific department, runs counter to the ethos of collaboration. You can sometimes see this in pharmaceutical companies, where the R&D scientists are keen to exchange ideas, whereas sales teams see only the potential loss of commission if good sales techniques or customer knowledge are widely shared. The second is that an intranet, on its own, is not a very good platform for the exchange of knowledge.

If you look at other collaborative tools, such as discussion lists and instant messaging, the return channel to an enquirer is the same as the channel used for the initial enquiry. The entire history of the search for knowledge can be seen in the thread of a discussion group. This is not the case for an intranet. There may be a list of queries posted on the intranet, but the response may be by telephone, email, or even a walk down the corridor. The result is that there is no means of tracking the progress of the enquiry, or even the end result. Quite often the way in which a query is solved in a discussion list is itself very valuable knowledge as it may stop others from going down a blind alley.

One of the top-ranked intranet applications in any survey is always the internal personnel directory, for the very reason that people want to connect to those with knowledge rather than to a page of information. In my experience, searches for documents are often to identify staff with specific expertise rather than to read the information in the document itself. However, many personnel directories leave much to be desired, often because no one is quite sure who owns them. In theory, it may well be Personnel, but in a highly distributed organization there may be many departments with the role of Personnel, but without the resources to maintain directories.

The situation is often made worse by a lack of standardization on how staff citations are listed. A site I worked on recently often had pages that invited visitors to email a comment to the author about something on the page, but did not provide a link that automatically opened up a mail dialogue box. The result was that anyone wishing to comment had first to track down the correct email address before sending a response. This illustrates the comment I made earlier about the return channel not being through the intranet itself.

Another collaboration problem is the extent to which communities can create and maintain their own intranet sites. Hypothetically, a good content management package will enable sub-intranets to be created, but it is not as simple as that. The community may feel that the corporate look-and-feel is not appropriate to their objectives, and want to set up a simplified version. They may also have a problem with the enterprise search engine spidering their content, especially if it is very much work-in-progress. Links in and out of the site may create a management problem.

However, taking a pragmatic view can be effective. I am currently working for a UK police force that has a standard Front Page approach to content management, and it works (fairly!) well. A police force must always respond quickly to circumstances and, in order to facilitate this, the organization has provided project teams with Compulsive News ( as a way of enabling operational staff to create almost instant sub-sites. For example, a site set up to deal with the impact of the Iraq war on local air force bases was set up in a hour or so.

A March 2002 Accenture report on the global chemical industry, "Riding the Knowledge Curve: Research and Insights" says it better than I can: "Why is it that few companies are getting it right when it comes to corporate knowledge creation and sharing? The answer may be that many companies are approaching it as an information technology problem that requires tools to solve it, rather than as a business issue. The companies that get it right will be the ones that recognize that corporate knowledge is about the way that business is conducted, a culture change and a shift in mindset."