Any Fortune 1000 firm suffers from an embarrassment of riches in its employees’ knowledge. What’s most embarrassing is how seldom that collective wisdom is brought to any given project.
Lotus Development’s Discovery Server, scheduled to ship by May, targets that very problem. Discovery’s biggest promise is not that it can dredge up an obsolete document written by a long-departed corporate drone, but that it can connect you with the people in your company who are most likely to help you-no matter where in the world they work.
Like many search engines, Discovery can crunch its way through documents on file servers, databases, intranets, discussion forums, other enterprise digital depositories and the public Web. It even sorts out your company e-mail (an approach pioneered by Tacit Knowledge Systems).
Discovery, says Lotus, helps you build a Yahoo-like directory of documents, using technology from Lotus parent IBM’s Almaden Research Center. Dubbed Sabio, the taxonomy-building technology creates three-dimensional “clusters” of documents and then uses statistical techniques to group the clusters into topic categories.
This can save more than 80% of the labor required to set up a corporate topic directory, says Glen Kelley, senior manager for knowledge management product marketing at Lotus. (No automated system can do the job completely. For example, notes Kelley, by just poring through e-mail traffic, it might decide your business strategy was deeply obsessed with March Madness basketball.)
Over time, as Discovery keeps pondering its universe, “it should help you see knowledge trends in the organization and understand things like knowledge gaps,” Kelley adds.
Mapping the Mountain
Discovery hammers its way through the mountain of data, identifying relationships between topics, people and documents. What’s more, it analyzes what Lotus calls “digital bread crumbs,” says Kelley. That is, it keeps tabs on how you access and manipulate information (for instance, if you often read and revise a document, its topics rank higher in importance).
You get the results in a graphical “K-map” in your browser. Results are ranked and divided into documents, people and places (such as a department page on an intranet).
Lotus hopes your company will run Discovery alongside its companion K-station enterprise portal, which presents your e-mail, to-do list, favorite Web pages, access to corporate databases and other key online information sources. (The two products can be bundled together at a list price of $395).
Add these to Lotus’s Notes/Domino collaboration software, and you get a suite of tools for acting immediately on whatever Discovery finds for you, Kelley says. Not only can you find the document that should match your need most closely, you can see if the author is immediately available via Sametime, Lotus’s real-time communication system. (If your company’s ready to buy yet more server packages, Sametime can hook up to national-language translation engines so that you can, say, chat away in English on one side and German on the other.)
And if your Sametime dealings with your newfound corporate friend are useful, “all of that information can be captured and all of that can be reused,” Kelley says.
This Time It’s Personal
Discovery ends up knowing a lot about you, i.e., the corporate employee-and learns more every day. It automatically builds your employee profile, starting with what your mail system knows and tracking your other activities each day. (Do you feel a small twinge of concern here?)
Your profile can show not just your basic contact information but your projects, type of job, education, skills and areas of interest. You can add relevant information, and you retain, Lotus says, full control over what is visible within the company. Discovery continually chews on this information, sending you an e-mail whenever it has an Aha! moment about your interest.
Who Wants to Play?
Of course, the big question that remains to be Discovered is how employees generally react to all of this. Lotus has a distinguished history of building very clever and very complicated collaborative tools that are often undermined by passive resistance of those they intend to benefit. Do you, the employee, feel completely comfortable with your Discovery profile, and are you willing to hone it further? Would you respond to an e-mail asking you to do so? And how often on a given day would you welcome a Sametime interruption?
While Lotus’s knowledge-management suite pushes the state of the art, widespread adoption will be “a big challenge,” says Gartner Group analyst Simon Hayward. “The issue is not technical features, it’s the ability of enterprises and users to exploit such capabilities.”
Kelley emphasizes that Discovery was carefully designed to sooth privacy concerns and ease the burden of updating the system, but he acknowledges the concerns. “Knowledge management is probably 10% technology and 90% people and corporate culture.”
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