There's a new buzzword just aching to make its way into your vocabulary. It's "distributed cognition." It means two or more heads are better than one. Nobody knows everything, so it's a good idea to hook everybody together in big webs of knowledge. For many knowledge-management vendors, it's a recycling of their sales pitches for knowledge bases and the like. The theory is that if you can get everybody busily contributing knowledge to an online location where others can use it, you'll soon have a computer system far smarter than any single employee. An updated term for this is "online collaboration."
The problem is that computers don't bring people together. People either gravitate toward one another or they don't and the computer is secondary in the process. I worked with a large Indianapolis company with a full-scale portal with dozens of forums where people should have contributed online messages in droves. But a perusal of the forums revealed that some of the freshest messages were more than a year old. The problem wasn't the portal, but the culture. The company itself encouraged silo management, so employees didn't think of themselves as members of groups, but of departments.
That's not to say online collaboration is worthless. Sitescape (www.sitescape.com) is a commercial vendor selling Sitescape Forum, and its Web site features a case study of how Shell International Exploration and Production uses the product to save millions of dollars by sharing knowledge online. Buckman laboratories (www.buckman.com) is famous for boosting its profits enormously after starting a knowledge-sharing network online. Ford (www.ford.com) has an online knowledge system, too. Each is different, as befits the different corporate cultures.
But as encouraging as these are, these are the exceptions. Most knowledge-sharing systems falter or fail, mostly due to misapplication and lack of appropriate management. Traditionally, the price of failure could be huge. Software like Sitescape doesn't come cheap. It then takes years to fully grow the sharing systems and integrate them into corporate life.
But now the purchase price might not be the barrier it has been. The open-source community has produced a number of products that are free, easy to download and install, and capable of being rewritten to suit your needs.
An example is ACollab (www.atutor.ca) from ATutor. It's actually designed for educational environments, but it can be adapted for business or not-for-profits. It has discussion forums, chat, a calendar and a whiteboard. It sits atop ATutor, a learning-management system. The price is right, but because it's designed for educational purposes, the language of its interface may be confusing for businessfolk.
No such problem afflicts "wikis" (www.wiki.org). A wiki is collaborative software that is so simple it can usually be installed and running within minutes of its download. The original wiki was designed to be as plain as it could possibly be, and plain it is. A wiki's pages are editable by anyone. An engineer in Hong Kong could start a page about soil liquefaction and a soil geologist in Boise could either edit the page or add comments of her own. Wikis make do without forums, calendars or user profiles. They are, however, free to download and cheap to experiment with.
There have also been fuller-featured wikis developed, such as twiki (www.twiki.org), that have access control, calendars and other tools bigger applications do, but with a wiki look and feel. Lest you think wikis are feeble because they're so simple, consider that one of the Web's largest encyclopedias is run on a wiki (www.wikipedia.com).
Phprojekt (www.phproject.com) is full of things to play with: calendar, contacts, to-do lists, projects, file manager, chat, forums and even time cards. This one is truly international in scope. Some of the messages are written in broken English.
Yet another example bills itself as a "project-management system." Project/Open (www.project-open.org) has the usual discussion forums, file storage and search engine, but adds customer management, timesheet management, management accounting with profit and loss per project, basic human resources management, a provider and free-lance database, reporting, and translation work flow. DotProject is similar (www.dotproject.net).
All these and more are free for the downloading. There is ongoing support cost, just as there is with any software. And their sites tend to appeal more to developers than to adopters like you and me. Also, if you're not an experienced techie, you may need help loading and running them. But if you're ready to try online collaboration, feel free to experiment. Just remember that the tool comes second; a good sharing environment comes first. If your culture doesn't promote sharing, it won't happen.
Altom is a systems interaction designer for Indiana University, based at IUPUI. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.