RealTime IT News

Social Networking Comes to the Enterprise

The concept of knowledge management has been an elusive chimera to corporate America since the mid-1990s.

Ever since employees came to be seen as knowledge workers, companies have been searching for ways to capture and disseminate the stuff inside their heads.

Companies have attempted to accomplish this through a variety of applications, from simple e-mail to document management solutions with complex taxonomies, but to little or no avail.

CustomerVision, a Des Moines, Iowa-based company, is offering BizWiki, a solution that is leveraging the techniques of Internet-enabled social networking as a business tool.

BizWiki, which is provided as an on-demand service, allows users to create and edit content without having to adhere to a rigid content management format.

It also allows users to get authoritative information using an "Ask the Expert" function. Responses from designated experts can be automatically posted as a piece of content.

"It helps corporations retain intellectual capital and dynamically build their content bank," said Brian Keairns, CustomerVision founder and vice president of product management.

And the business world seems to be biting. Without the benefit of a marketing push, CustomerVision has won over about 100 customers. The company also said that revenue has been growing by more than 300 percent per year.

Many of its customers are Fortune 1000 companies shelling out anywhere from $100 to $5,000 per user per month, depending on the size of the implementation.

One such customer is MWABank, a regional bank based in Illinois. Steven Ollenburg, president and CEO of MWABank, told internetnews.com that his organization is using BizWiki to respond to e-mail questions more efficiently.

"Financial services entities need quick, clear and concise responsiveness to electronic customer inquiries; these cannot take days to be responded to, nor can they build up into a project," he said in an e-mail.

He said that MWABank has generated "extremely noticeable" cost savings from the use of BizWiki, but would not disclose exact figures.

While the idea of a grass-roots social networking tool appealing to the button-downed world of Fortune 1000 companies might seem contradictory, Keairns explained that the company's sales pitch focused on the business aspects of the solution, not the approach epitomized by sites like the collaborative Web encyclopedia, Wikipedia.

"There's a difference between what drives a wiki in the consumer world versus the enterprise," he told internetnews.com.

"The consumer world is driven by interest, specialists and hobbyists. The business world operates under a different set of rules."

In the business world, he said, wikis can drive knowledge sharing and collaboration by providing users with a tool that they can easily integrate into their usual workflow. And companies will be interested if it helps them solve a fundamental problem.

"We don't talk about wiki technology," said Cindy Rockwell, CustomerVision's CEO and a former Wells Fargo executive. "We talk about providing the tools they need to collaborate."

Those tools include an import function so that users can use word processing software if they prefer, although no HTML is required to enter content into the BizWiki interface.

Another difference between BizWiki and pure a wiki environment is that organizations can control which employees can edit or add content.

According to Jim Murphy, an analyst with AMR Research, large pharmaceutical companies, aeronautic, oil and gas exploration, and consulting firms are prime candidates for a knowledge management program.

"They are most susceptible to the retirement of the baby boomer generation," he told internetnews.com.

"High-value workers are about to leave all these organizations in the next five years, and they carry in their heads the intellectual property of the companies for which they work," he said.

But traditional knowledge management solutions have suffered from both psychological and technological barriers to adoption.

"People don't want to give up their knowledge--they can see what it's for. It makes them expendable," noted Murphy.

Moreover, said Murphy, document management solutions are often too rigid and difficult to use.

"E-mail helps channel knowledge. Document management systems tend to be heavy. They are hard to contribute to and too hard to use," he said.

Murphy said that wikis combine the ease of use characterized by e-mail with the knowledge-sharing functions of a document management system.

"A wiki evolves with the company. It captures knowledge without having to be overly forceful about it," he said.

However, Murphy cautioned that wikis will only succeed where true communities of interest exist, such as the R&D department of a pharmaceutical company, or a particular practice within a consulting firm.

In that context, users will find the information they need and willingly share what they know.

"You can't do knowledge management across an entire organization," he said.

But the rewards can be great for those who do implement an effective knowledge management solution.

"They can capture intellectual capital that is being lost by most organizations," said Keairns.