In the know'knowledge management software

In post-9/11 era, knowledge management tools let agencies cross organizational lines and measure performance

The lowdown: knowledge management

What is it? Knowledge management software is not a single-purpose program, like a word processor or spreadsheet. Instead, it consists of a software suite including an enterprise search tool that finds and categorizes information stored in structured databases and in unstructured data sources such as Web pages and text files.

Typically, the data sources are referenced by a central, searchable repository; increasingly, the repository is also part of a content or records management system. Collaboration software is the third leg of the stool; it makes the knowledge in people's heads accessible, and facilitates sharing.

Why do I need it? Agencies are increasingly turning to KM suites as platforms for their e-government efforts, including improving constituent service and agency collaboration, and transcending the barriers between data silos and legacy applications. It can also help agencies meet post-9/11 mandates for improved intelligence sharing. The more leading-edge applications can discover sensitive intelligence in audio and video transmissions.

How much does it cost? Enterprise class, repository-based KM software starts in the tens of thousands of dollars and reaches the millions for hundreds or thousands of users. Vendors almost always offer volume discounts that can significantly reduce per-user costs.

Must-know info? A full-blown KM solution is a massive undertaking that requires a substantial investment in data integration and implementation services'typically by an outside consulting firm'and ongoing training for users.

If there has ever been a term of art in IT, it is knowledge management. More a buzzword than a real category, it usually adorns software whose primary purpose is something other than knowledge'most often search, content management or collaboration.

But after years of indifference, the post-9/11 federal government is embracing KM. First, officials view KM's ability to cross organizational and technical boundaries as a possible fix for the notorious 'silos' that may have left the country vulnerable to terrorism, or caused the failed response to Hurricane Katrina.

The same bird's-eye view of easily digested information that the best KM provides might also aid agency heads who are under increasing pressure to measure performance. It can also make government contact centers more effective at serving constituents. Some agencies are even eyeing it as a way to prevent know-how from walking out the door with the first cohort of retiring baby boomers.

KM's growth is real. Input of Reston, Va., a government-market research firm, predicts that federal KM spending (mostly software, but also the new hardware needed to run it) will grow 6 percent annually, from $965 million in 2005 to $1.3 billion by 2010. Tellingly, the biggest segment ($538 million in 2005) is for professional services to design and implement KM systems, then train employees to use them.

Federal agencies aren't just interested in KM; some may be desperate to catch up to executive mandates for improved information sharing and providing common IT architectures.

'Getting the Justice Department to coordinate with other homeland security departments is woefully behind schedule,' said Jim Krouse, Input's director of public-sector market analysis. 'If there's not any significant movement in the next few months, I would expect to see congressional hearings.'

That's not to say that other agencies aren't interested in KM technology's original purposes. 'The primary one is the ever-growing need to make sense of unstructured information,' said David Truitt, president and CEO of MicroLink LLC of Vienna, Va.
MicroLink, an integrator, has installed KM solutions built around an enterprise-search engine from Autonomy Inc. of San Francisco, Microsoft Corp.'s SharePoint collaboration server and portals such as Plumtree from BEA Systems Inc. of San Francisco.

The company also played a role in developing nearly 20 knowledge portals for the Defense Department and other agencies, including Navy Knowledge Online.

What is knowledge?

KM has always been a vague term. 'It's very much a set of practices and not a product,' said Stouffer Eagan, chief strategy officer at Autonomy.

'The way I understand it, [KM] is a set of technologies that allows users to find answers to their questions,' said Lubor Ptacek, director of product marketing at EMC Documentum of Pleasanton, Calif., a content and storage management vendor that has acquired KM and collaboration tools in recent years.

Indeed, software vendors and industry analysts are more adamant than usual in admonishing managers to change business processes before buying KM technology.

At a minimum, a KM product must have an enterprise search engine that can 'crawl' most of an agency's information sources'be they structured databases, word processing files, Web pages or legacy applications'and summarize their content.

Typically, most of the content has already been referenced and indexed in a centralized repository. Many KM solutions also include a Web or intranet portal for single-screen access to both the search engines and the underlying content sources.
The latest-generation search engines employ categorization or classification techniques to bring more structure and meaning to their results.

'Very often, the right keyword is never used in the document, yet the application gives you the right answer,' said Ptacek. 'That's where classification comes in.'

Traditionally, one leg of the KM stool has been collaboration features that can bring in the 'tacit knowledge' in people's brains, as opposed to the explicit knowledge in databases. KM collaboration goes beyond basic groupware, treating people's expertise and subject areas as categories for the search engine.

'The big question is, is this technology actually useful for making the implicit knowledge explicit?' said Hadley Reynolds, vice president and research director at Delphi Group of Boston.

That was the old KM, or at least its core, with collaboration the next layer. Now, with the new homeland security demands, a new generation of applications that builds on its predecessors is getting agency attention.

Text and speech analytics software searches and summarizes not only print, but also video and audio. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see that federal and local law enforcement wants these loosely defined KM tools for surveillance purposes, hoping to avert an attack by finding a needle in the proverbial haystack of 'chatter.'

Thanks to this redefinition of knowledge as intelligence to be shared across agencies, KM tools have taken on major new features. Security is now paramount, so the more sophisticated, large-enterprise KM tools come with broad and deep controls over user access rights as privacy and other compliance issues severely constrict what agencies can do with the information.

'The infrastructure technology has to be able to say, 'here's what you have rights to,' and it can't be that it goes back and checks with each of the repositories,' Eagan said.

Entity extraction is a leading-edge feature of search engines geared to the new market for intelligence-oriented KM. It finds and classifies concepts that identify important entities in unstructured text, such as people's names, organizations and Social Security numbers.

Down to the details

'The majority of our government customers are usually providing some kind of portal with extraction capabilities,' said Claire Gronemeyer, senior product manager at Inxight Federal Systems Group of Reston, Va., maker of the SmartDiscovery platform, a search engine with extraction and classification features. Analyst communities within the government use the software's entity extraction features to set up and search terrorist watch lists, for example.

'Most of these applications deal with enhancing the analytical abilities of the intelligence analysts,' Gronemeyer said.

Another important government product category being infiltrated by KM's search and discovery technology is records management software, which provides electronic assistance to the age-old government function of storing and cataloging official records.

'In the current legislative environment, ... just about everything you do is a record' Ptacek said. A spate of KM, search and content management vendors sell optional records management modules.

Content management software, which came into being as a late-1990s response to the proliferation of Web pages and other electronic content, is another category taking on KM features.

'To a lot of people, content management and knowledge management are to some degree interchangeable,' Ptacek said. 'We partner with some of these search technologies and then we build, essentially, a knowledge management application.'

Some KM vendors focus exclusively on Web content, helping law enforcement agencies monitor, for instance, the sites of terrorist organizations. Reynolds cited the new Excalibur software from Convera Corp. of Vienna, Va., which is used by the FBI, as an example.

On the standards front, the most significant development is the Unstructured Information Management Architecture, an open-source platform IBM is giving away to encourage developers to build interoperable analytics tools for unstructured text in documents and other content including images, instant messages, audio and video. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and numerous other government and academic groups back UIMA, and more than a dozen search vendors, including Inxight, plan to support it.

The chart on Page 30 includes search, collaboration and content or document management products that are marketed as KM solutions, and which have significant government business. Not shown are document management products that focus mainly on repositories.

KM experts offer the following tips:
  • Investigate how much customization is required.

  • Be prepared for a substantial service expense, and compare vendor service costs and requirements.

  • Compare products' ease of use, both during and after deployment.

  • Look for software that conforms to open Web-services standards, which will make it easier to customize, expand and integrate. A broad, Web services platform will be more accommodating to best-of-breed applications that you might want to add later.

  • Scrutinize each product's ability to scale up to handle future demand, and watch out for vendors who mislead with impressive performance numbers that don't account for searching through entire documents.

  • Look for detailed, directory-based access controls and encryption that can accommodate your agency's security and privacy rules.

David Essex is a freelance technology writer based in Antrim, N.H.


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