David Weinberger
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The 99 cent KM solution

01 September 2002

By David Weinberger

I am not opposed to big, expensive, all-embracing KM solutions. I'm just suspicious of them. There is a difference. And I get more suspicious of them as they promise to automate more. On the other hand, the ones that offer to put me in touch with more people bring a rosy glow of happiness to my face. Maybe it's just me. So, I don't want to discourage anyone from investigating big, expensive systems. Some of my best friends work at the companies you'll be talking to. But I do also want to encourage you to keep in mind that you can do a lot on a shoestring budget.

If part of KM is to be put in touch with an ever-widening circle of interesting people (Answer: Yes, it is), then start with e-mail. There's nothing as useful for finding new friends and for sharing information than a simple mailing list. That way when a salesperson asks, "Has anyone ever actually gotten the X23 connector to work?" and when the engineer replies, "Yes, but we forgot to mention that you have to seal it with bubblegum," the entire sales force--and the engineering department and the technical documentation folks—learns.

If mailing lists are good (Answer: They are), then you ought to encourage them. Put in place a mailing list manager. Pick one that's really easy to use. And build a prominent directory of mailing lists so everyone can see what's out there. Capture all the mail sent through these mailing lists so it can be indexed and found and reused. It's just plain dumb not to do this. Watch the Knowledge Stars emerge. Watch the sharing of information that used to be hoarded. Watch the foliation of knowledge. Involve your customers and partners and watch it all go exponential. (By the way, not only allow but encourage the creation of "off topic" mailing lists. The world is so connected that nothing is off topic any more.)

Give everyone a home page. Provide a template with information you'd like shared, such as department, areas of expertise and cell phone number. But then encourage people to go nuts. I once worked with someone for eight years and never found out that she's a superb water colorist. Don't you think that that "tidbit" might have helped me work with her better? On the other hand, at one company that took my suggestion, one of the first home pages had a pointer to the employees "man-boy love" page, raising some difficult issues. You might want to reserve the right to edit home pages for appropriateness. (Do I now have to turn in my American Civil Liberties Union card?)

Weblogs are the new home pages: providing a site for individual expression. Make it easy for people to create a weblog. Keep it behind the firewall if you must; they can do their own personal blogging on their own time. Not everyone is going to take to weblogging, of course. Some people are shy and some people are slow writers. But an enormous outpouring of ideas and critical reactions will occur. Voices will emerge. The mid-level engineer in R&D may turn out to have caustically trenchant things to say about marketing. The woman in shipping may have her finger on the pulse when it comes to HR and morale issues. The graphics designer may be on a tear about why the company isn't taking international competition seriously enough. Who knows? But that's the point. Weblogs make audible the real, unmasked voice in the back of the corporate head.

Then there are the non-digital ways of encouraging the creation and sharing of knowledge. Leaving office doors open. Weekly pizza parties. Brown bag lunchtime lectures by employees on what they care about. A free library with monthly book club meetings. Learning to listen. Shutting up once in a while.

And that still leaves $0.99. Go buy yourself a cookie. You deserve it.

David Weinberger edits "The Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization" (hyperorg.com), e-mail [email protected]