The management concepts of enterprise information portals (EIP) and Knowledge Management (KM) have been tossed around in guru circles since 1998. Intuitively the concepts seem sound enough—better communication of information enterprise-wide across departments and geography should lead to better decision making and allow the enterprise to better manage and leverage the knowledge generated. However, actually quantifying and measuring the benefits of these management concepts has proven to be elusive.
In his book Enterprise Information Portals and Knowledge Management, Joseph M. Firestone lays out the intuitive arguments that define EIP and KM and establishes a process for measuring the benefits derived from those management concepts. Through this process, IT professionals and other decision makers can accurately estimate the benefits of each system. The downloadable chapter from Enterprise Information Portals and Knowledge Management explains how improvements to competitive advantage, ROI, and productivity can be measured and estimated.
Information Portals and Knowledge Management
In our interview with author Joseph M. Firestone, TechRepublic explores the benefits of EIP and KM and discusses some of the obstacles enterprises face when implementing KM.
[TechRepublic] In your book, you make a concerted effort to define Enterprise Information Portals and to discuss how they came to be and how they have evolved over time. For the benefit of the TechRepublic membership, could you provide a nutshell definition of EIP and describe the relationship it has with Knowledge Management?
[Firestone] I've always thought that the best definition of the EIP was the very first one by Chris Shilakes and Julie Tylman in their 1998 Merrill Lynch report that launched interest in EIP products. Here it is:
"Enterprise Information Portals are applications that enable companies to unlock internally and externally stored information, and provide users a single gateway to personalized information needed to make informed business decisions. " They are: " ... an amalgamation of software applications that consolidate, manage, analyze and distribute information across and outside of an enterprise (including Business Intelligence, Content Management, Data Warehouse & Mart and Data Management applications.)"
I like the breadth of this definition. It, along with their supplementary specification of the EIP concept, envisioned a category of application that would integrate business intelligence based on structured data with collaboration, workflow, unstructured content, and knowledge management. The term "information" in Enterprise Information Portals is being used here in a very broad way to encompass all kinds of structured and unstructured content, and the EIP was envisioned as a generalized application that would also make available a broad range of applications—analytical, text processing, and collaborative—to end users. In spite of its comprehensiveness, this definition of EIP does not lack clarity. It makes clear that ideal EIPs synthesize diverse processing orientations, and that an EIP is not just a "front end", but a portal system whose specific content is changing and expanding over time. This "openness of meaning" in the scope of portal functionality is an argument in favor of retaining the original definition of the EIP as a useful strategic concept that can give rise to innovation in the field for some time.
When EIPs first appeared in 1998 and the early part of 1999, they were characterized as KM's "killer app". I think, though, that as time goes on it has become clear that however helpful increasingly comprehensive EIP products are in the areas of information sharing, publishing, searching, and information retrieval; collaboration and community facilitation; structured data analysis and reporting; content management, and even work flow integration and composite applications; they are still far from providing anything but improved generalized support for KM, through the support they provide for information processing and management.
KM, after all, is about managerial interventions that enhance knowledge processing including problem recognition, knowledge making or production, and knowledge integration. But EIP products cannot currently distinguish information from knowledge, so how does one know when one has made knowledge or whether one is integrating it, rather than just information? EIPs generally do not currently include functionality for systematically testing and evaluating knowledge claims, so they are without support for one of the primary things people need to make knowledge, either in groups or communities or in the enterprise as a whole. Finally, EIPs do not generally provide specific support for many common categories of managerial activities of knowledge managers. For example, what specialized support do EIPs provide for leadership functions, or for Resource Allocation, or for negotiations with representatives of other managerial functions, or for KM-level knowledge making and knowledge integration? The answer is little, if any (see Chs. 13 - 17 of my book, and my series of KM World columns in 2003).
[TechRepublic] In your book you also take some time to define "knowledge" in the enterprise context and to discuss the impact of "culture" on the transfer of knowledge. Overcoming entrenched corporate cultures, with their inherent emphasis on data islands, is a major aspect of EIP and Knowledge Management implementation. How can IT professionals help in this regard? Has it been your experience that it is often the IT professionals themselves who are entrenched?
[Firestone] I think EIPs are very much about overcoming data islands. They are the latest in a series of technology solutions aimed at ending the stovepipe problem. However, I don't think success in integrating previously existing data islands is a problem of special motivating significance for KM, but rather for Information Management (IM). Nor do I think that entrenched corporate cultures can be overcome by information integration, alone. Entrenched corporate cultures are about old and entrenched and static knowledge, and also about political power. The way to end such entrenchment is by encouraging problem seeking and recognition, and by supporting distributed problem solving and innovation processes and integration of newly produced knowledge in the enterprise.
IT professionals can help in overcoming entrenched corporate cultures by recognizing that KM is not primarily about IT, but rather about knowledge process enhancement in the service of specific high risk decisions. They can contribute to such enhancements by developing portal-based applications that support (a) distributed problem seeking and recognition with respect to high risk decisions, (b) acquiring external information, (c) performing individual and group learning, (d) arriving at tentative solutions to the problems presented by high risk decisions, (e) testing and evaluating those solutions, (f) integrating the newly made knowledge into the organization's distributed knowledge base, and (g) using it at the decision and business process levels of the enterprise to reduce the risk of error in these decisions.
This recommendation is incremental in character. It suggests that IT professionals, working within a strategy set by Knowledge Managers, move from key high risk decision to key high risk decision, to gradually improve knowledge processing and open the way for decision makers to create new knowledge day-by-day. Eventually, as a culture of problem seeking, recognition, and innovation is established in more and more high-risk decision types, this culture of openness, novelty, error elimination, critical evaluation, and success will replace the entrenched corporate culture of defensiveness about old knowledge. It will melt away, and in its wake a new open enterprise, supported by a portal system of distributed problem solving, will emerge.
To address your last question, I don't think that IT professionals are any more entrenched than other professionals in the enterprise. In fact, I think they are less so, considering that they have lived through so many "revolutions" during the last 15 years. New IT problems are always appearing, and new knowledge to solve these problems is never far behind. I have great confidence in the ability of IT professionals to deliver useful decisions for KM. But I think it is up to KM professionals to define their field and their own requirements clearly enough that those applications can be delivered.
I think the reason why EIPs have fallen short of becoming KM's "killer app" is that such clarity has not existed in KM and it has been all too easy for IT professionals to deliver "KM applications" that are really IM or information processing applications. I've tried to address this issue in my book on EIPs and also in my newer book with Mark W. McElroy, Key Issues in the New Knowledge Management (Burlington, MA: KMCI Press/Butterworth-Heinemann, 2003). I've also written a lot about issues relating to the scope of Knowledge Management in my blog, "All Life is Problem Solving."
[TechRepublic] The amount of information flowing through an enterprise can be overwhelming when considered on the whole. What role do IT professionals play in implementing Knowledge Management to tap that information and make it useful? What aspects should IT professionals concentrate on when they are considering the benefits of EIP and Knowledge Management?
[Firestone] IT professionals play a similar role in implementing KM to the role they play in relation to other enterprise processes and functions. The knowledge managers need to address the specific support required from IT professionals and the latter should implement applications that deliver that support. In order to help in KM, I think IT professionals need to learn some KM Theory, and specifically the sort of KM theory that clearly distinguishes "knowledge" from "information" and KM from IM. From where I sit, IT professionals seem to use the words "knowledge" and "information" interchangeably, and the irony of the idea that "KM is about getting the right information to the right people at the right time", seems lost on them. What needs to be kept in mind is that KM is not IM, and while IM applications are certainly of benefit to KM as well, they don't address its core. IT professionals need to learn what that core is, if they want to do a better job of developing useful KM applications.
[TechRepublic] Using the common protocols of HTML and XML means that EIP applications are within reach of just about any enterprise. But it also means that the Web browser becomes the default method for interfacing with the portals. Are there EIP and Knowledge Management mechanisms in place to counteract the numerous security problems associated with browsers? Can architecture mitigate these security concerns?
[Firestone] Security for EIPs is really important, but I won't say much about it since vendors such as Plumtree, IBM, Sun, and SAP have moved vigorously to meet security problems. Your readers can check these products, Netegrity and other vendors for viable current security solutions.
[TechRepublic] Obviously, the implementation of EIP and Knowledge Management systems is not something that can be accomplished overnight. The process will take planning and concentrated effort. What general advice would you give an organization considering such systems? Can it generally be done with staff on hand or is outside help recommended?
[Firestone] I don't recommend implementing an EIP with the expectation that it will be a KM solution. Instead, I think one ought to begin on the KM side by developing a KM strategy. That should begin with some KM training that emphasizes both theory and methodology for implementing KM programs and projects. Once that's done, decision types (e.g., the prescription order entry decision in a hospital) ought to be prioritized according to risk, and risky decisions should be selected as potential targets of KM interventions. The KM strategy then becomes one of building and implementing a portfolio of KM interventions designed to enhance knowledge processing and innovation in risk-filled decision contexts in order to reduce risks and the costs, both monetary and non-monetary associated with them. As the KM strategy is implemented step-by-step, measurable benefits are produced for the enterprise and are attributable to the KM program and its interventions. This builds social credit and enables continued implementation of the program.
Other things being equal, the most risk-filled decision type should be addressed first, by designing and implementing an IT application that will use previous organizational knowledge to challenge a decision that appears to contradict that knowledge, while leaving the decision maker the option to persist in his/her decision if he/she records a reason for over-riding the application's recommendation. The application should then support evaluation by others of the new knowledge claim entered by the decision maker, including the retention of the record of evaluation of the new knowledge claim.
This type of IT application will enhance distributed problem recognition and criticism of individual-level knowledge and encourage formulating new tentative solutions, criticism, and testing of these solutions. It will also support evaluating and revising established and entrenched organizational knowledge, and integrating such knowledge in risk-filled decision contexts. As applications of this type are implemented in more and more decision contexts, increasing participation in knowledge production and integration and replacement of entrenched knowledge will result.
Where EIPs come into all this, is in providing the framework for integration of the new applications produced by the KM interventions. When, precisely, it will be necessary to introduce a portal to accommodate the new knowledge-process-enhancing applications will differ from organization to organization. Most large organizations already have portal systems. In that case, there is little additional cost in integrating the new IT applications resulting from the KM program from the start. In cases where portals are not already available, the systematic introduction of knowledge-process-enhancing IT applications will soon create the need for a portal so the various applications can be conveniently accessed within a secure, comprehensive, and integrated framework.
Incidentally, as portals containing such IT applications become commonplace, EIPs will begin to take on some of the character of true knowledge portals, because they will be incorporating both knowledge claims and the record of their performance in the face of criticism and testing. Such meta-claims about knowledge claims will then provide a basis for distinguishing knowledge claims that have survived criticism, testing, and evaluation from those that have not. Claims that have survived are an enterprise's knowledge and claims that have not yet been tested, or that have not performed well are just information. So there will finally be a basis for portals to distinguish between knowledge and information, a key requirement in creating Enterprise Knowledge Portals (EKPs). In the book, I spend a lot of time developing the idea of the EKP and the requirements for EKP applications. The book makes the case that EKPs don't exist yet. KM programs such as those outlined above can, over time, and as our software agent technology increases in sophistication, evolve them.
As you can see, the concepts encompassed in EIP and KM are sophisticated, with success requiring a significant commitment from the entire enterprise. IT professionals at all levels should educate themselves on the benefits of these systems. The downloadable chapter from Enterprise Information Portals and Knowledge Management is a good place to start.
- A Single View: Integrating Structured and Unstructured Data/Information Within the Enterprise
- BackWeb ProactivePortal Server White Paper
- Hummingbird EIP: Enterprise Information Portal
- The Benefits of an Enterprise Information Portal
Mark W. Kaelin has been writing and editing stories about the IT industry, gadgets, finance, accounting, and tech-life for more than 25 years. Most recently, he has been a regular contributor to BreakingModern.com, aNewDomain.net, and TechRepublic.