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Knowledge management: Lotus' yellow brick road

The journey began in June of 1998.

Then-CEO of Lotus Development Corp. Jeff Papows personally introduced the world to knowledge management, wizardry the company believed would usher in the next generation of collaborative computing.

Papows and Lotus said building capabilities into Lotus Notes and Domino to help organizations leverage their intellectual assets would become the Cambridge, Mass. IBM subsidiary's primary mission, not to mention serve as a preemptive strike against Microsoft Corp. and other competitors in the collaborative applications market.

Today, more than two and a half years later, Lotus has finally swung open the gates to the Emerald City with the release of its K-station portal builder. The much-anticipated Discovery Engine, still hiding behind a curtain, could emerge to complete the Lotus offering in the next several weeks.

With a mixed reaction to its products to date and parent company IBM Corp. also clicking its product development heels, it is still unclear if knowledge management will prove to be the wizard Lotus needs it to be.

In the beginning

Lotus' goal was to help a corporation develop a long-term memory independent of the individuals working for it. To that end, it launched its knowledge management project under the name of Raven, a title shared oddly enough by Edgar Allen Poe's maligned work.

In defining the term knowledge management, Lotus theorized a company could gain a competitive advantage by tracking the skills of its people and the events of its past, that is, if such data could be accessed, searched and updated.

"There has been a long-standing discipline as to how businesses will leverage intellectual capital to be more efficient, responsive and innovate faster, and we saw our technologies were a reasonably natural fit there," Scott Cooper, vice president of the knowledge management business unit for Lotus.

Cooper said knowledge management prevents a company from reinventing the wheel. For example, a microchip manufacturer may have solved a heat mitigation problem five years ago but only used that knowledge once. If that knowledge were suddenly needed again, but its developers no longer worked for the company, then that solution would have to be reinvented.

Thanks to knowledge management, a history of such developments, independent of the developers themselves, could be recorded, archived and leveraged again in the future. Or, a KM solution could identify the lone developer still with that microchip manufacturer who previously worked on heat mitigation.

Portal to 21st century

Looking to add what Cooper called the "unique Lotus angle," the company aimed to combine knowledge management with its strong background in collaborative applications.

Lotus based its KM solution on Domino infrastructure in order to take advantage of its Notes interface, providing current Lotus customers with a familiar feel. It also served as a launching pad for integration with Sametime, Lotus' instant messaging software, and QuickPlace, Lotus' Web-based collaboration software.

Larry Hawes, senior analyst with The Delphi Group, said Lotus had the right idea, but the company was trying to promote a product that the market was not yet ready to receive.

"There's been a lag in the market in the uptake of knowledge management. Back in '98 it was still a very academic subject, and people -- business managers and CXOs -- weren't seeing tangible benefits from it. It was hard to prove an ROI, and there wasn't a willingness to invest," Hawes said.

When the market finally shifted in Lotus' favor in 2000, it felt changes in its strategy were needed.

It considered eliminating Domino infrastructure dependence to appeal to a broader market, a move now likely to be made in 2001. It then announced it would split its KM offering into two pieces; a browser-based portal called K-station and an indexing and search engine called Discovery Server.

Cooper said Lotus' market research dictated splitting Raven in two because many customers wanted to make use of single K-station components without purchasing all of them.

Jonathan Spira, chairman and chief analyst of Basex, Inc., a New York technology analyst firm, said - to Lotus' chagrin - the move showed a company could develop a viable knowledge management system without investing in every piece of Lotus' suite.

"Obviously, the two separate tools together provide maximum impact for any organization looking to understand how to completely get into knowledge management," Spira said.

Entering the portal

Lotus officially released K-station in October. It is a browser-based point of access for knowledge management, written entirely in Java servlet programs. Serving also as a collaboration portal, it integrates shared places and place-based solutions, as well as online awareness and chat components.

While Lotus calls it self-contained because there are no required client components, K-station includes its own dedicated server, a Sametime server, and requires at least one R5 Domino server with which to connect.

Cooper said K-station was released ahead of Discovery Server because it was simply ready first, and Lotus did not want to delay K-station needlessly.

"The world is portal crazy at this point," said Cooper. "What a lot of our customers are doing though is saying 'our starting point around making our people more effective is to give them a portal-like interface to work in'. "

Spira said K-station on its own addresses a broad cross section of knowledge management requirements.

"K-station gives you the interface, a single point of access, and a dashboard. It's really critical in terms of how your users view things," Spira said.

Speaking the same language

Mark Gordon, managing partner of consulting firm Knowledge Resource Group, a creator of custom portal solutions, said he was impressed when he used a beta version of K-station.

While buggy, he said it was well-built and potentially very powerful. He also said he liked K-station's use of XML rather than HTML to handle back-end data.

"If I've got a front-end window that can read XML, it makes programming easier to link the [K-station] window to a different source because they're all going to speak the same language," Gordon said.

Lars Johansen, CEO of IT Factory, an e-business solutions provider and Lotus Business Partner, said even though most companies have not yet discovered the value in knowledge management, he is enthusiastic about the technology because of its potential to work with Lotus' existing applications.

"What excited us, as a Domino ISV (independent software vendor), is from a business perspective to take a new product and leverage the existing customers," Johansen said. "That's why I find Lotus' stuff exciting because it's integrated in other existing platforms."

Discovering the future

Lotus plans to release its Discovery Server within the next several months. Cooper said many long-awaited details about Discovery Server, including its exact release date, would be made public at Lotusphere in Orlando later this month.

For now, Lotus has said it would enable the creation of a Knowledge Map UI, featuring taxonomy of expertise that is mined from employee profiles, e-mails and other company documents. That knowledge map will be linked to K-station and serve as the core of its search capabilities.

Some believed Lotus' parent company, IBM, showed little faith in Discovery Server and K-station with the recent launch of its own Corporate Portal Offering, a combination of knowledge management software and consulting services featuring technology from Lotus as well as Lotus' competitors.

However, Cooper said IBM's announcement was widely misinterpreted.

"What we build are a set of packaged software products. The announcement of the Corporate Portal was from the service arm, IBM Global Services, and their charter is around assembling anything on the planet to solve a broad range of problems," Cooper said. "There's a subtlety in that difference, it doesn't feel competitive at all."

Yet some have speculated that Lotus' knowledge management focus has been diluted and the end result will not live up to expectations. Cooper said Lotus' KM vision has matured, and is ready for the tasks that lie ahead.

"One of the things about this that's a challenge is how you leverage what you already know," Cooper said. "What an organization already knows is partly written down and partly written in peoples' heads, and that's going to be true for as far as we can see in the future."

More information is in this transcript from a recent searchDomino chat with Kellie Hunter, Lotus' K-station product manager: Transcript

Information on knowledge management may be found at this Best Domino Web Links site:Knowledge management

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