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The first iteration of knowledge management featured a predictable helping of hype and was embraced by large organisations eager to underline their credentials by appointing a chief knowledge officer to spread the KM gospel.

That approach belonged to the late 1990s and today businesses are less voluble about the term KM while more of them practise the ideas that gave rise to it. As technology has cascaded down the line from corporate IT departments and costs have declined, KM has inevitably been pitched at small and medium enterprises (SMEs). But in the process the nature of the product has changed.

A lot of the KM programs that fit within SME budgets appear to be sophisticated document management applications rather than the digital information exchanges that were offered by early KM thinking.

And mass adoption of the internet with broadband access has allowed portals to function as simple vehicles for KM. The kind of facility that was available to very large organisations with extensive intranet resources can now be re-created cheaply on a much smaller scale.

Clive Longbottom has studied this trend for UK industry analyst Quocirca. He points out that only large companies have a pressing need to embrace KM.

“People have to get to grips with the problem of drowning by data in a big business. So they have a lot of experience of choosing KM portals and business intelligence tools. But smaller companies are not under the same pressure and they have to find inexpensive tools. And SMEs cannot afford to use a systems integrator, they have to buy products that can be sourced via the sales channel.”

Microsoft’s Sharepoint software is a perfect example of a big idea finding an economical route to the mass market. But Mr Longbottom cautions: “Microsoft is the centre of gravity for SMEs. But to make the most of Sharepoint they must have the latest versions of Microsoft systems.”

Ken Rutsky is vice-president of marketing at Workshare, a privately held company incorporated in the UK that sells a suite of collaborative document management software worldwide. Workshare has 5,000 customers of which 4,000 are SMEs. Workshare scans documents for the remnant information from previous versions of a text.

The idea is to ensure accuracy by making sure that changes made to one version are incorporated across the business. Mr Rutsky concedes that Workshare was born out of document comparison, but has no doubt that the KM label still applies. “The division between KM and traditional content management made sense before email reached its current volumes. Now SMEs have to find new ways of managing the life cycle of documents, and this has entered into the realm of classic KM.” Workshare sells for between $49 and $349 per user.

IBM’s offering in a market with a series of confusingly similar names is Workplace, an online collaborative environment that can be used to manage projects. This in turn feeds into Teamspace, a more traditional collaboration tool.

What distinguishes these products is price, with a 20 user pack available for as little as £1,561. Karen Di Mora, director of marketing at IBM reseller VMA in New York, says value is everything for an SME. “They can get more value out of KM software than a large business if they can use it to expand without taking on more staff. Productivity tools can be very significant for SMEs, and the idea of Workplace is that the learning curve is minimal.”

Microsoft’s contribution to an expanding field of applications is Sharepoint, a program range within Microsoft’s server family of software. Flexibility is what counts, says Mike Fitzmaurice, a senior product manager at Microsoft. “This was not built as a vertical solution, we always intended it to be something small business users could use to create their own work areas where they could engage with clients.” Professional services businesses appear keen on Sharepoint.

Mr Fitzmaurice talks about how these are the very people who do not want to go to the IT support staff (if they exist) in order to arrange a basic task like maintaining a common list of mobile phone numbers. “We want to make using Sharepoint ubiquitous, to have people turn to it without feeling they are managing a big project. The idea is to make KM like a spreadsheet, so it is the obvious tool to turn to for certain tasks.”

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