Think Info

Exploring the information space

Bubbling knowledge in business

Businesses have a problem: there is a disconnect between the people with knowledge, and those in customer-facing roles. Whether the communication is pre- or post-sale, those charged with providing customer interaction are, by and large, operating half-blind. The salesman lives in the sales silo; the customer service rep lives in the service silo; the technician with the answers lives in a dark cellar.
Siloed communication

So what? We know our message.

“Marketing departments know the customers, they have product spec-sheets to educate them; they can craft appropriate messages.” “Service centres have customer profiles, case histories, and Q&A filtering methods that allow monkeys to find the right answer; what more does the customer want?” Somehow, this model is still hanging on.

In a marketplace that demands more attention to individual needs – personalisation of message and interaction – this disconnect between those who know and those who communicate is not viable. To craft a message that targets the individual, those on the communications front line need a more intimate knowledge of what they are selling, or servicing. They need access to the inside of the technical people’s heads.

Communications between business silos is hampered by management fiefdoms, and job descriptions that do not emphasise dynamic, cross-disciplinary knowledge sharing. The effort involved in getting an authoritative answer from another department discourages the attempt.

We have a solution, but…

In last week’s article – The Enterprise as the Context – Michael Sadler presented us with an overarching solution: he postulates that the enterprise as a whole has the contextual knowledge to personalise communications. Michael’s approach calls for the contextual categorisation of information to be delegated to everyone within the organisation. While a noble concept, this presents its own issues: it dilutes the specialised skillsets of both the technician and the marketer; and the perceptions of relevant context are very different.

We need a model that allows information to permeate the barriers between silos in an on-going, fluid manner, without everyone being a jack-of-all-trades. We need technical knowledge to transition from the cellar to the marketing suite in a form that allows the marketer to understand the facets, and craft suitable messages based on the needs of a non-homogenous audience.

We need a mechanism – a tool – that allows the people with the technical know-how to create contextual documentation that can be mapped to appropriate external communications.

Just stick it on the Wiki

Wikipedia is a wonderful concept: a crowd-sourced knowledge base in continual flux. Its success resulted in business knowledge stores often being referred to as Wikis. Most of these claims at imitation fail on three fronts:

  • they have a (business-silo centric) hierarchical structure
  • they do not enforce authority standards
  • they lack the profusion of links between related material that makes Wikipedia work

The real value of a Wiki is in the ability to create links across silos, without having to know about the other silo. A good wiki will, at least in the knowledge department, erase the barriers between disciplines.

Business can no longer afford knowledge bases that are built around organisational structures. They cannot create dependencies purely on a tree-based categorisation structure. Every element of information needs to be considered as an entity in its own rights, with relationships defined to suit its empowerment. Information needs to be able to make those associations itself (well, at least recommend them).
A comparison of classic and realistic information relationships
(The reality is even more complex than the diagram: the real relationships between nodes depend on the person accessing them.)

Yes, there is a mind-set shift required to get the people with the technical knowledge to put in into the Wiki, and do their part in categorising it so it can be effectively used by the non-technical users (and, of course, the information relationship needs to flow the other way too).

A multi-directional communications channel

How do we ensure that this resource – this corporate Wiki – is tapped into as a source of knowledge as well as being a repository? How do we notify the people who need to access and process this information that it is available? There are many potential answers to this question. In general, they resolve around:

  • a good ability to search,
  • a notification mechanism associated with every post, and
  • open discussion.

The first of these requirements is predominantly a technical one. Search needs to be on body content, meta-data (including mapping of personalised folksonomy to taxonomy; what I would call a thesauronomy) and relationships, with the option of contextual constraints.

The notification mechanism can be an in-house Twitter-like service, with messages triggered by all posts, though a more granular subscription model is needed (e.g. person plus subject).

Achieving an open discussion is a little more complex. Fundamentally it relies on dissolving the perception of absolute ownership, while retaining responsibility to support material. All discussion that occur around content, in search of clarification, should remain associated with that content (the clarification, of course, being integrated into the main instance).

The resultant connection of information, of understanding, is greater than between the product builders and marketing. It can be chained through the entire product lifecycle, from conceptualisation to design to prototyping to refinement, build, marketing, distribution and even the end customer. Fundamentally, everyone within the organisation has access to the reasoning and decisions, all the technical and communication choices, made throughout the process; the marketing messages ties directly back to the source material.

Imagine, if you would, writing a product description for a web site. The copywriter has access to product specification and the backlog of discussion material that went into the design process, plus previous marketing derived from this source. They can see metrics on the success of earlier endeavours, and once they have assembled the new material, it can be passed back to the original product designers/developers for proofing. Then, when a customer submits a query about the product, it is tied to all this support material; if an answer cannot be found by the support personnel, it can be passed back to the source authority, thereby enriching the knowledge pool.

Information that infuses the entire business

By implementing a contextually-relational information storage and notification mechanism as outlined here, every element of information can easily permeate the entire enterprise. Knowledge will be shared cleanly between silos, its interpretation and manipulation for alternate audiences available in contextually relevant ways. By sharing through organic associations, the knowledge of the entire enterprise – and all the contextualisation parameters – is available to those who need access to it.

Allowing knowledge to bubble up through all the layers of business will require implementation of an appropriate technical architecture, and a change to working practices. Providing suitable documentation within the knowledge system will have to be a part of everyone’s job description. It is no small endeavour.

What, though, is the value of knowledge? What return is to be had on the right knowledge being in the right hands when it counts? Let us break down the barriers between silos and allow contextualised knowledge to flow through our organisations.

Reference links

Michael Sadler’s article: The Enterprise as the Context
Siloed communication, by Chris Shipton@ChrisShipton


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