Telecom eyes total knowledge sharing

Telecom's document management system is only a small part of its effort in encouraging the sharing of knowledge across the company.

Telecom’s document management system is only a small part of its effort in encouraging the sharing of knowledge across the company.

The telco has been using the locally developed product The Silent One for document management in the narrow sense — that is, mostly for the storage and retrieval of completed and stable documents, says portals manager Bede Cammock-Elliott.

Development of documents, sometimes by collaboration among authors, is usually done in the ordinary Novell shared file system. This has the weakness of no sophisticated version control and limited security — usually everyone can see or edit such documents — but it is adequate for the purpose, he says.

When a document in progress is significant and sensitive enough — for example, the contracts for Telecom’s CDMA network development — it will be put into the document management system so the author can restrict permissions to see and alter the document to particular groups.

The Silent One was adopted in 1999 as part of a Y2K technology update. The prior system, a metadata product called BRS which sat over the Novell shared-file system, wasn’t Y2K-compliant.

The chief reason for the separation of the two systems is historical, says Cammock-Elliott. The Novell file-sharing system has been in use since long before the document management system was implemented; it is present on about 150 servers, handles far more than documents and it would have been unproductive to replace it with The Silent One.

However, Telecom is in the process of developing a search engine and portal that will span both systems and Telecom’s vast intranet, and also integrate a “newsgroup” system the company has for discussion and information requests.

The newsgroups are a dialogue tool useful for finding sources of unstructured knowledge in a large organisation. A staffer will “post” a message asking “does anyone know about this topic, or have the answer to this question?” With luck he or she will receive a reply, also posted on the newsgroup, either answering the point, or recommending a suitable source for that knowledge.

The inquirer and the ultimate source of the knowledge possibly did not know each other, and may work in far-apart locations, so without the newsgroups, that knowledge would never have been passed on, says Cammock-Elliott.

The newsgroups, however, have no index or archive — no equivalent of the internet’s dejanews.com. The planned search engine will allow references to a particular topic to be found among current discussions, “but the newsgroups were never set up to archive effectively”, he says. This is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

Telecom currently uses Novell Group-wise to set up the newsgroups, but aims shortly to move to Microsoft Exchange. This will integrate mail and news more closely, and allow staff to use Exchange’s shared and public folder structure.

The tools are only 20% of the battle for knowledge sharing, he says. The other 80% is cultural — encouraging people to share knowledge rather than keeping it to themselves. “The idea that knowledge is power is a hangover from the past. Some people still haven’t got the message that shared knowledge is power.”

Staff were encouraged to use the newsgroups “by appealing to their capitalist instincts. We set up a group called the ‘Bazaar’, where they could offer things for sale.”

Newsgroups still have their “speakers” and “lurkers”, who just read the messages, he says, admitting this poses the danger of getting an unrepresentative set of interpretations and points of view.

“We don’t get the complete picture,” he says, “but we get a lot more than we would have done without it.”

The intranet encompasses The Silent One document management resource, as well as access to applications.

The other main point of resistance to sharing knowledge is the perceived risk of “speaking out of turn”.

“They might not want to say something [in the public forum of newsgroups or shared documents] in case it gets back to the boss.”

Guidelines have been put in place to encourage management not to react negatively to such comments, and there is “a commitment by executives to encourage collaboration,” Cammock-Elliott says. But most of all, the fear is combatted by practical experience, “by just doing it”.

“The community [of workers] has to be engaged for something like this to work,” he says. “People have to be a community first.” Tools alone will not produce the community.

Even with a common portal and search engine, emails are still not captured or indexed in Telecom — nor likely to be. “Mail is seen as a one-to-one or one-to-a-few medium” and will remain that way, he says.

Systematic content management has never been implemented for the 50,000 pages on the intranet either. “The intranet grew organically and we never put it in.” He says that’s a task for this financial year.

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