Knowledge Management: Value Is Relative

Portal vendors incorporate technology, though ROI still tough to prove.

Seconds are precious in Jamie Mannings world. Manning doesnt want to see peoples eyes wandering aimlessly, as they waste time hunting for buttons to click. He doesnt want to see search terms such as "paid time off" entered over and over if he can just whip up a time-off tool to plunk on a Web page. And he doesnt want that paid-time-off tool to even be there unless its May and tulips are blooming and thoughts of vacation time have sprung into his colleagues heads.

Mannings world, aka SycamoreWorld, is an intranet based on Plumtree Software Inc.s Corporate Portal Version 3.5, which ties together Oracle Corp. human resources applications as well as collaborative tools such as eRoom Technology Inc.s self-named product. Someday, it will be an extranet for customers, but, today, SycamoreWorld services Sycamore Networks Inc.s 700 worldwide employees.

Manning—a senior manager for the optical networking companys Web team—wants that world to be transparent when it comes to delivering what is, in essence, the basic definition of knowledge management: the right information to the right person at the right time.

That can lead to increased productivity. The seconds it used to take for a Sycamore employee to hunt for a given piece of data about, for example, product specifications on the static pages that preceded SycamoreWorld, added up to hours and hours of lost productivity when multiplied by hundreds of workers, said Manning, in Chelmsford, Mass.

Not that Manning is claiming hes been able to build a clear, convincing return-on-investment case for KM. "Its hard to just say, Weve saved X percent," said Manning. "A lot of people do that. I think theyre just blowing [smoke]."

Still, say experts, despite the lack of a clear ROI argument for KM, many organizations are beginning to see the technology as not just a luxury but a high priority, particularly in enterprise portal applications. And though it may seem counterintuitive, the chilly economy is hastening the change.

"Most companies today cannot afford to invest in more technology, more people, more infrastructure," said Carl Frappaolo, an analyst with Delphi Group Ltd., in Boston. "They need to better leverage existing resources. That is where knowledge management comes in."

And the more KM portal vendors weave into their products, the easier it is for customers to avoid having to make a stand-alone case for KM ROI. Indeed, Plumtrees Collaboration Server served as an important deciding factor in making Plumtrees Corporate Portal 4.5 the engine powering the U.S. Geological Survey Center for Biological Informatics extranet, which the agency set up about a year ago.

National Biological Information Infrastructure Technology Research and Development Director Mike Frame last year had begun to search for a way to provide more customized information to his departments 1,400 users, 1,200 of whom are scientists who needed a better way to collaborate online and organize research data and relevant news articles. Frame prototyped portals from Oracle, Viador Inc. and Plumtree before deciding on Corporate Portal Version 4.5. He is now a beta user of Plumtrees Collaboration Server and Studio Server, two add-on products that offer collaboration and KM features, including discussion forums, a calendar, task lists and document management.

Frame uses the content management features of Plumtree Studio Server to facilitate discussions and document sharing in various communities of interest. One community, for example, focuses on geospacial data, such as migratory bird routes or land ownership across the United States.

But for now, few users are relying to that extent on portals newfound collaboration capabilities. Most are still tying together Web services tools, or gadgets, with separate KM and enterprise applications, as is Sycamore Networks and the state of California.

It was Californias energy crisis that spurred state government into pulling KM capabilities into its award-winning My California portal ( In the two weeks following its launch in January 2001, the portal had a 60 percent growth in unique visitors, putting it in Jupiter Media Metrix Inc.s list of the 10 sites with the highest growth.

The portal is powered by BroadVision Inc.s One-to-One Enterprise Version 5.5 e-business platform. Arun Baheti, director of e-government, in Sacramento, said his team is using BroadVisions personalization capabilities to allow Californians to create personalized pages but that he relies on Kana Inc.s IQ knowledge base software to allow government workers to better serve citizens.

For example, Baheti implemented the Kana tool in June 2001 to aggregate information regarding blackouts and energy consumption from sources such as the public utilities commission, the California energy commission and trade associations offering discounts for energy-saving products. Combined with BroadVisions personalization and natural language search capabilities, citizens can now receive a customized view of their house, to illustrate where and how to save energy.

Whats the ROI on that portal or its use of KM? It doesnt matter—governments a monopoly. But ask about My Californias worth to any Internet-using Californian whos, say, gotten their new license online and been spared from spending his or her lunch hour waiting in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Their answer will likely be "priceless." Links to other stories in this package

  • Portal/KM Mix Gains Mind Share
  • Tools of the Trade
  • Standards to Drive Services