Open knowledge base by improving intranet access for employees

As intranets become integral to government networks, the term "knowledge
base" continues to pop up. On an intranet, it differs markedly from its usual
meaning.


A classical knowledge base exists within an expert system. The application-specific
knowledge, coaxed from a human expert, is set down as rules. Artificial intelligence
solves problems based on those rules. Success depends on the quality of data collected and
the effectiveness of the rules.


When people talk about making a knowledge base available over an intranet, they're
really hoping to tap into all the rules, data and people available across an
enterprise--searchable databases of regulations, agency employment policies or accounting
spreadsheets stored on individuals' hard drives.


To build up a knowledge base this way really means opening up the collective expertise
to all employees. It requires moving from closed, proprietary systems to more open
environments.


Visit the World Wide Web site at http://www.mainspring.com/PackageFrameset/0,1186,2,00.html
for a fascinating look at how human resources policies posted on an in-house Web site can
improve communication with employees. You'll have to register for a 30-day evaluation on
the Mainspring home page.


When organizations print their human resources guidelines, employees generally file or
lose the copies. But policies maintained online in a searchable format encourage employees
to check anytime they have a question.


Some government organizations post and index their technical, procedural or legal
manuals this way. A frequently asked questions (FAQs) list can be a wonderful tool. Some
offices even post operating instructions for office machines on an intranet.


But such manuals are still only a small part of an organization's knowledge base, and
Hypertext Markup Language pages usually don't get daily updates of mission-critical
information. The real power of the knowledge base comes in giving employees access to live
databases without forcing them learn a new interface for each one.


That makes it far easier to find and train information gatekeepers who will maintain
the organization's knowledge base. These users should have to understand only Web browsers
and a few simple forms for querying and updating databases. They shouldn't worry about the
complex integration that goes on behind the scenes.


Visit http://www.innergy.com/and look for the
Intranet Magna Charta, a list of rights that intranet developers and users should demand.
One basic: All information systems should be open and accessible. Anything that doesn't
fit this mold will hurt the organization in the long run.


As the knowledge base expands, the next step is to create standard templates for
tracking correspondence. Other steps include setting up a searchable electronic filing
system, giving employees read-only access to the parts of the accounting system that
affect their jobs, and enabling online purchasing.


Consider letting employees operate personal Web servers behind your enterprise
firewall. Even materials on individual hard drives can belong to everyone--in read-only
format.


As your intranet advances, you can move toward an expert system-style knowledge base.
One way to do this is with a decision tree, in which employees search for information by
answering multiple-choice questions. Visit Microsoft Corp.'s customer service center at http://www.microsoft.com/support/ for an
example. There are troubleshooting wizards to help visitors find specific solutions.


An intranet can and should be more than just another network. It gives your workers a
window into information that's just not available over a conventional LAN.


Shawn P. McCarthy is a computer journalist, webmaster and Internet programmer for GCN's
parent, Cahners Publishing Co. E-mail him at smccarthy@cahners.com.


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