Information Today
Volume 19, Issue 7 — July/August 2002
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IT Report from the Field
On Conferences, Cabbies, and KM
by Hugh McKellar

At the risk of stretching a knowledge management metaphor way too thin, I have a story to tell about a little taxi ride I took while in New York.

The day before InfoToday 2002 began I wanted to pay tribute to the victims of September 11. The hotel doorman got me a cab and told the driver to take me to Ground Zero, adding to me that the fare should be $10­$12. I repeated my destination to the driver, whose first language curiously enough was English. Before I go any further, let me make one thing clear: Even though I go to New York three or four times a year, I do not know my way around the city—my itinerary is airport, to hotel, to conference, to hotel, to airport. But that said, I did start getting a bit suspicious when the fare reached $14—the driver told me it was due to traffic. Traffic? On a Sunday in Manhattan?

At $16 I asked the driver, "Are you sure we're going to Ground Zero?" I was assured that, indeed, we were.At $20 I asked again. At $23 and as we got on an expressway, I asked one more time, "Are you sure we're going to where the World Trade Center used to be? You know, Ground Zero?"

"Ground Zero?" the cabbie replied. "I thought you said the Bronx Zoo! See, I even wrote it down." Two hours after I got into the cab, he dropped me off at the viewing platform. I gave the driver 10 bucks, no tip.

Tickets were four blocks away. It was another 2 hours before I could get on the platform to view the site.

My front seat/back seat problem was precisely the problem organizations face—and some still do, of course—with front office/back office communication. Getting systems to talk coherently to each other and deliver information to the right people at the right time is the very heart of knowledge management.

'Off the Record'

Viewing the KnowledgeNets 2002 PowerPoint slides at will give you an excellent overview of the conference content—certainly far better than I could in this report. And the links to other sites and organizations offer access to as much detail as you could hope for on any given topic. Check it out—it will be time well-spent.

But the presentations can't capture the conversations outside the session rooms or in the aisles of the exhibition hall, so I'd like to share the essence of some of those conversations along with some of the "off the record" statements to which I was privy.In all cases, this information comes from the proverbial "sources who wish to remain anonymous."

First, there was a lot of discussion (and some despair) about the sheer volume of content management (CM) providers. Some vendors and analysts place the number as high as 75, even after the latest round of consolidation. In this case, the meek certainly won't inherit the earth: Firms in a weak financial condition will continue to be gobbled up. The technology is far from mature, but the larger players will likely spend less time developing new functionality while shopping for bargain companies with good, complementary technology.Further, some of the big portal players will emphasize their own content management systems over the integration of legacy CM offerings into their platform. Or at least so say anonymous pundits.

The acronym on everybody's lips was absolutely no surprise: ROI. KM offerings faced skeptical customers in the very best of times, but now vendors no longer have the luxury of simply touting the advantages of their really quite remarkable technology. Walking into a customer's office now means quantifying cost savings. One mistake they are making, though, is placing too much value on time saved by knowledge workers.

The increasingly popular ROI calculators developed by some software companies extrapolate cost savings to astronomical levels while assuming that employees are simply machines. The "savings achieved by reducing search time" can be automatically translated to the bottom line. Sources say that to be successful, companies must be smarter than ever before and thoroughly understand their customers' weaknesses and pain point so they can efficiently and surgically solve their problems. So vendors must manage their knowledge to effectively help their customers manage theirs or run the risk of becoming the cobbler whose children go barefoot.

Long before September 11, it was obvious to all of us in this business that government—municipal, state, and especially federal—had done a pretty good job at best managing its information resources. Since then, most Americans have realized just how desperate the need is for information management in these times. So it shouldn't be much of a surprise that a lot of informal conversations centered around how ripe this field of technology is to improve intelligence gathering, analysis, and dissemination.

Vendors and attendees alike admitted that they have long been pursuing government for knowledge management consulting and providing solutions. But only in the past 9 months has there been a palpable sense of urgency on the part of some government agencies. One mentioned a number of times "off the record" was the CIA, and it doesn't require much of an understanding of KM to realize that organization's need to gather and analyze unstructured data. And these comments came before the FBI's and CIA's acknowledged failure to properly share information or act upon the information it gathers—or before President Bush announced the new Department of Homeland Security.

Although the need for KM-related goods and services has been recognized, dealings with the government aren't necessarily rosy, even in this time of need, some say. Government IT infrastructure is still at the Pentium I stage in all too many instances, and the paperwork and sales cycles required to deal with the unwieldy bureaucracy are staggering.Add to that the complexity of offerings on the market and some sources fear that what initially appears to be a tremendous patriotic and market opportunity will become a huge mess.

Make no mistake about it, though, this is just the sort of challenge that the best KM practitioners and vendors will overcome.

Hugh McKellar is editor ofKMWorld magazine. His e-mail address is

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