The Knowledge Management Expansion: Changing Market Demands Force Traditional Firms to Reinvent Themselves

Article excerpt

Text retrieval firms are rushing to reinvent themselves as knowledge management solution vendors. However, the knowledge management market, while promising, appears in the short term unable to compensate for the decline in the traditional text retrieval market--leaving companies like Fulcrum, Dataware, and Verity vulnerable to cash-flow problems. For these firms there could be tough times ahead.

Certainly, methods for harnessing corporate knowledge are converging into what is now commonly called knowledge management. Simply put, knowledge management is the process of capturing a company's collective expertise wherever it resides--in databases, on paper, or in people's heads--and distributing it to wherever it can help produce the biggest payoffs. On the surface, all of this is good news for text retrieval firms that are well placed to exploit the knowledge management renaissance by adapting their core technologies.

Knowledge management is not simply an extension of information management. Becoming a knowledge-based company requires changes in culture and business processes, supported by an IT infrastructure that makes knowledge easy to use and distribute. According to Ernst and Young, almost 90 percent of 430 respondents in its first international survey of corporate practice in knowledge management in the U.S. and Europe consider that they are working in a knowledge-intensive business. Seventy-seven percent say that knowledge about customers is "the most critical" knowledge. Interestingly, 96 per cent of those surveyed agree their company could get more value out of its knowledge base.

Acknowledging that knowledge is an under-used resource, Ernst and Young believes companies are now turning to knowledge management--in the first place to help them know what they know, and then to marshal and exploit this knowledge in a systematic way.

Fulcrum Looks to New Markets

For this reason, many traditional text retrieval firms, such as Fulcrum, Dataware, Excalibur, and Verity, have launched or are in the process of developing knowledge management products. For example, at the beginning of 1997, Canadian firm Fulcrum Technologies launched its Knowledge Network suite, which allows users to search across all data sources simultaneously by inputting just one search. Fulcrum's European managing director Fabrizio Mignini explains, "The only problem with accessing many different information sources is that users need a way to concatenate the content that they have found. This is where the Knowledge Network becomes useful."

Users of Fulcrum's software start from a Knowledge Desktop, which, Mignini explains, could be a Web browser, a Microsoft Exchange/Outlook client, or a customized Windows interface. A Knowledge Map provides a logical view of the company's information, dividing it into thematic folders, such as marketing, finance, and legal. Within each folder may be a range of sources that might include competitors' Web sites, Word and Acrobat documents, PowerPoint presentations from a local file server, and Excel spreadsheets held on a remote server in the U.S.

After a search query has been entered, the term is delivered to Fulcrum's application server. This starts up the relevant Knowledge Activators, which are connected to the different data sources and locate the relevant information. It also checks security permissions to ensure that users have access rights. Documents are then returned, relevance ranked, to the user's desktop.

An "admin" module allows the systems administrator to connect to the different information sources from an NTlike graphical interface and maintain the whole intranet from one workstation. Adds Mignini, "This amounts to huge savings in time and money as well as eliminating systems admin and maintenance headaches." Additionally, if the user is searching from an Exchange or Outlook client, they can forward the retrieved document to other people within the organization, even if the item was found on a remote server or in a document management system. …