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The topics discussed here grow out of the bread-and-butter issues that confront my consulting and software clients on a daily basis. We'll talk about prosaic stuff like Membership Management, Meetings and Events Management and Fundraising, broader ideas like security and software project management, and the social, cultural, and organizational issues that impact IT decision-making.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Meatball Subs & Knowledge Management

I was in the middle of an office move many years ago, all my papers and books and files stacked on the floor or dumped in cardboard cartons, when the messenger service showed up to collect a proposal we'd just finished and and needed to get into the hands of our prospective client by close of business. Yikes... it was somewhere in that mess of papers and folders and boxes, but who knew where? Thirty minutes later I was still rooting though piles of paper and growing more frantic by the minute when in strolls my friend Phil, just back from Germany or Japan or somewhere and looking to see if I want to go get a meatball sub. "Not now, I've vanished a proposal in this junkheap here and I've got to find it!"

-- What's it look like? asks Phil.
-- Blue glossy folder, I answer.
Phil scaned the mass of paper littering the room for about 30 seconds, reached deep into a refrigerator-sized box, and there it was! He saved my hide.
-- I can't believe it, I told Phil. I've been searching for that for a half an hour.
-- See, your problem is you try to be totally organized, so when something is misfiled, it might as well be gone. But I'm always a total mess. My office looks like this all the time. So I've had to get very good at finding things quickly.

This memory came back to me the other day while reading the promotional material for Google's Gmail. Their hook is that with the superfast Google search technology lurking behind your email reader, there is no longer any need to worry about filing your mail in the correct folders. Don't organize, search! they say. They've gotten very good at finding things quickly. It's just an automated version of my friend Phil's approach.

And it's a significant story as your organization starts to think about knowledge management. We see lost knowledge gobbling up time and money in our own organization and in the offices of our clients all the time. And one major way knowledge is lost is that the documents in which the relevant knowledge can be found are not easily retrievable.

Obviously, retrieval can be improved by an organized approach to document management - naming conventions, storing in the proper folders, keywording, attaching douments to the proper contact records in your CRM, and so on. We wrote a document management system for the president of a major university a few years ago that took this approach. But we can compare the struggle to get organized with my friend Phil's approach by a quick experiment.

Sit at your desk, in front of a computer attached to your office LAN and the Internet. Okay. Now, using your favorite search engine see how long it takes you to find the name of Paris Hilton's lover in those infamous videos the gossip columns were all talking about last year. Okay. Write down your time. Now let's try someting else. Using whatever tools you have at your disposal, find out when the service contracts on your major office equipment expire. Took longer, I bet. Pretty bizarre world we live in.

Rapid full text search is a very powerful natural language way to retrieve information. In our office, we find that we rely heavily on our ability to search the full text of every user service request and its resolution in order keep track of information about our software. So I suspect Phil's approach to knowledge management is going to become more popular in the next few years. Tools that bring the power of Internet search engines to your own document repository are already available for a a few thousand dollars; they ought to start selling like hotcakes. We can find information on the internet at lightening speed with no special training, and without requiring the authors to use any special filing conventions. Why not at work?

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