Q & A: Tom Koulopoulos on E-Business

What has the knowledge management movement accomplished so far?
KM has united business, IT and economic interests into a large community. It provided a concept around which to help guide the direction of IT, but it was somewhat of an illusion. The tools for enabling KM were missing by and large, or they existed as components that could not be easily stitched into a solution, which created real frustration in the KM community.

How is KM evolving now?
KM fertilized the soil for thinking about several recent developments. Today's portal technology and business-to-business (B2B) technologies, for example, embody the principles of knowledge management--they just don't use the term as a label. But it's not just a migration from one label to another. Now that we have tools that can manifest KM principles by making them visible and tangible, it allows us to put together a value proposition for businesses. That was something IT had a difficult time doing with so many fragmented components scattered about.

What is the role of portals in KM?
The portal is a window into the myriad data streams, applications, networks and processes that make up an enterprise. It is a layer of technology that unifies the chaos and the silos of the enterprise in a single point of access. Today, we don't care what application we're in. What we care about is how the underlying information has been integrated into a single, cohesive presentation. Also, different entities can interface through their portals.

What is the role of B2B?
B2B creates value chains with higher velocity. Businesses have always worked together to create value chains based on "lock-in," so by not having your value chain easily replicated your suppliers couldn't supply someone else. Today, you gain competitive advantage by being able to swap in and out of value chains and to syndicate parts of what you know, parts of your process, with other value chains. Value chains are no longer linear and serial. Form a business by creating a demand chain, and the supply chain will create itself.

What is the value proposition you mention?
Portals are portable, sharable and transferable. The synthesis of one, two or three of the myriad transactions occurring during the course of a day could have incredible value if they are shared. The convergence of those transactions, those information streams, could result in some insight that, shared through a portal, could give someone else an insight they didn't have before. And you can transport your portal with you throughout your career. It embodies experiences you've had, the lens that you use to look at the world. Transfer this lens to someone else and you can extract value from that transfer.

How does technology support this process?
KM is about creating communities, reducing time to communities, whether two people, 200 or two million. The Web is the single most important milestone. It allows the formation of instantaneous communities across expanses of both time and distance, allowing those who know to connect with those who need to know. But the filters--the ability to define preferences--don't exist. You have to surf, dig and hope for serendipity. As the platform to enable KM, the Web will develop those filters.

How can value chains be extended?
Forget the supply chain. Think about the demand chain, which creates services and products instantaneously. At Delphi we've termed it "vortals"--the market communities that allow access to all the supplies and buyers in a particular market. When I submit my request for a new business to the B2B interface, it's actually going out and submitting that request to myriad industry vortals and getting from those vortals suppliers and other capabilities that meet my requirements.

What breakthroughs are needed?
Real innovation is needed in the visual representation of knowledge. We're still using mostly two-dimensional displays in windows. Knowledge is rich and its experiences often complex. One solution is akin to a war room, equipped with walls of monitors, where senior executives can make decisions based on making sense of such visual displays. That will be significant to enabling knowledge management.

How can these tools evolve best?
You can never anticipate and fully understand the needs of everyone. You have to empower knowledge workers to express their own needs by developing their own tools.

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