E-mail, in the mind of Tacit Knowledge Systems Founder and CEO David Gilmour, is a tragically underutilized tool. The instantaneous messaging system can do so much more than just "move messages around," Gilmour says. E-mail is the nexus of the work world. It holds information on employee knowledge,
projects and project status, expertise and even personal hobbies.
What if the organization could tap the e-mail resource? Not in an invasive way, but in a way that would allow the enterprise to capture an employee's knowledge, then make it available to others in the organization. Such was the goal of Tacit Knowledge Systems, which worked for more than two years to develop an automated knowledge discover system that uses e-mail as its core contributor.
KnowledgeMail and its counterpart KnowledgeMail Plus work with enterprise-class e-mail systems to capture what Gilmour calls the intangible, tacit information each employee holds, and make that information available to the rest of the organization.
"Think of it as if you had a personal assistant following you around all day," Gilmour says, "and this assistant noticed everything you did and went with you everywhere you went, and at the end of the day, summarized all your skills and knowledge for you. Then, imagine this assistant was magically knowledgeable about everything else everyone else in the company was doing and could tell you about that, too. That's what this system does."
KnowledgeMail automatically examines e-mail messages or other documents created by the user, then creates a profile on each user based on information found in the documents. The profiles are continuously updated and are imminently searchable, so that others in the enterprise can be kept abreast of
in-house experts on a variety of topics.
"It's almost magical to think those kinds of connections could be made in business on an automated basis," Gilmour says, "but that's exactly what we do."
But there's a flip side to this new system of automated knowledge discovery: concerns over personal privacy.
"If you have a system that magically detects knowledge, skills, work focus and priorities, that's a pretty scary system," Gilmour says.
KnowledgeMail addresses the privacy issue by giving the user complete control over his or her profile. Everything the system learns about an employee is first placed into an encrypted, private profile that can be viewed only by the employee. Each employee decides which information he or she wants included in the profile before it is published. After receiving approval from the user, KnowledgeMail organizes the profile into a Web page that can then be searched and viewed by others on the system.
Giving the employee control over the profile can lead to another potential problem. What if the employee doesn't want anything published, maybe because he or she is working with proprietary information? KnowledgeMail Plus accounts for that option by offering a KnowledgeSweep capability not available on KnowledgeMail. KnowledgeSweep respects the users' privacy, but still allows other users to search for experts. It works like this: User A could send a query out on a particular topic system-wide. KnowledgeSweep would search users familiar with the topic who had requested to remain anonymous. The system would contact them, and ask if they would care to answer User A's query. If the user chooses to remain anonymous, he or she would not answer the query and privacy would be maintained. If, however, the user would like to be contacted, he or she could contact User A and go from there.
"The system acts like a matchmaker, hooking up the person who wants to respond to the person who wants information," Gilmour says. He adds, "Our goal is to make it impossible for two mutually interested parties to miss each other."
KnowledgeMail can also end the expense of group e-mails sent out to dozens of users, Gilmour adds. The system can help users target e-mails to just those people who can be of assistance or who have knowledge on a particular topic.
Texaco deployed KnowledgeMail about a year ago as part of a pilot program. Texaco, which employs millions of
people around the world, saw KnowledgeMail as a way to augment its in-house knowledge discovery system, PeopleNet, says John Old, Texaco's focus area leader of upstrain technology.
PeopleNet is part of Texaco's goal of "connecting the people that know the right things together," Old says. The software lists employees' skills, interests and other information that could be of interest to others in the organization. But PeopleNet relies on periodic updates from the users, and those updates aren't always first on an employee's to-do list.
"Any system where people have
to put in a resume is going to be
kind of static," Old says, "...but KnowledgeMail offers a dynamic aspect. It looks at e-mail conversations I may be having, and when people do a search in PeopleNet, that aspect of my profile will also be exposed."
There are about 200 KnowledgeMail profiles in Texaco's system, Old says, and the company expects to roll out approximately 3,000 more in about two months. At full rollout, Texaco expects to have close to 15,000 profiles on KnowledgeMail and PeopleNet.
So far, many have said the system has helped them make connections, Old says, but many have also expressed concern that others are "looking at my e-mail."
"One of the things we learned in the initial test deployment is that we need to spend much more time explaining to people exactly how their privacy is protected," Old says. "There is a wall there, and they control how high or how low that wall is."
While Texaco's deployment of KnowledgeMail is relatively small, Old expects the system's effectiveness will grow as more profiles are added. "The value of the system goes up as the number of the people in the system grow," he says.
As the number of profiles increase, the potential for return on investment will grow with it, he says.
"You hear stories all the time about random conversations that take place in the cafeteria that lead to propagating some totally new idea," Old says. "If you take that 'water-cooler' model and say I'm going to enable a water-cooler model that extends way beyond the people who happen to work close together, I don't question we'll get a great return on it."