January 24, 2006 5:07 pm

Encouraging information sharing

A corporate knowledge management system based on the type of technology used in Wikipedia and MySpace might seem a “Web 2.0” nightmare for the realistic IT manager. But the BBC, one of the UK’s biggest organisations, has been doing just this to encourage information sharing between its 28,000 staff – and other big businesses are taking notice.

Euan Semple, head of knowledge management solutions, is the man responsible for this successful and bold experiment which began in 1999 when he was charged with deploying a system. It was the time when large expensive knowledge management platforms were becoming available.

“I think they expected me to go out and buy a big system for hundreds of thousands of pounds, which I studiously avoided doing,” he says.

Instead, he bought a cheap piece of bulletin board software for £200. Dubbed talk.gateway, it was set up as an adjunct to the intranet, with two categories: “Queries and Questions” and “Discussions”. Any member of staff could register and create new threads.

Today it has 11 topics and includes an interest groups platform, connect.gateway, which all staff can join and set up. It is similar to features in the social networking website MySpace or blog host LiveJournal but, far from being a frivolous distraction, it is an efficient way of sharing information. There are 250 interest groups and as an example, Mr Semple picks the first alphabetical one, which is about Adobe software and has 3,500 members.

“If you wanted to contact all the people who we know use the list, we would have to contact all 3,500 people we know who use it, and risk spamming them,” he says.

Wikis were the next step and provided another simple solution – in this case for documents with multiple authors. The BBC again bought a cheap system. The organisation is not allowed to identify products it uses, but there are several dozen types of Wiki software available, most of which are open source and include features such as recent changes lists, version control and search.

Blogging is the most recent addition to the BBC’s knowledge management suite. So far there are about 200 staff blogs – including one by Richard Sambrook, head of global news. “It’s made him real in a way that most of the other executives aren’t,” says Mr Semple. The blogs, like the forums and wikis, are kept behind a firewall.

Although the BBC’s initiative has attracted interest from several large international companies, Mr Semple accepts that some organisations would not want to adopt such an open approach. The project has encountered opposition from people who question whether the organisation should adopt technologies and processes that are so new and potentially disruptive to the existing structure.

“I tell people that when we hire today’s 16-year-olds who have big thumbs and spend all their time texting, they will have to,” Mr Semple says.

He believes that if new types of communication technology are not supported within the organisation, they will carry on outside. Staff agree to a fairly standard “acceptable use” policy to participate in any of the new tools, and are aware that anything they write can be read by management.

Any problematic issues that arise are referred to lawyers, something Mr Semple says happens very occasionally.

He sees the systems he has introduced as much more about organisational culture than technology. “So much of business has been about treating people like children,” he says.

The whole system is still run with very few staff – Mr Semple’s colleague John Howard, the technology manager for DigiLab distribution and technology, looks after most of the development, maintenance and support, with some extra development resources for the forums.

The systems they have put in place were chosen to be low-maintenance and, in some ways, self-sustaining. To develop a blogging policy, for example, interested staff were identified via forum topic and used a wiki to develop it. The policy is now up for formal management review.

“I’m solving problems most companies don’t even know they have,” says Mr Semple.

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