The Technology Question in KM Tools

In my recent posts I was rather focusing on some soft factors of implementing knowledge related activities, like suggestions for organising your knowledge or on how to promote knowledge management initiatives. In my work, we focus around 80% of our time on these soft ingredients; but still, 20% of the work is the underlying technology. In order to enable knowledge sharing, we require tools and platforms.

One of a repeating topic regarding tools is the choice of technology: which provider has the best tools; on which technology platform shall we build our applications. In my work we are using SAP; I understand that for example in Singapore SharePoint is very dominant. IBM/Lotus is pushing in collaborative solutions since more than a decade; there are many Content Management System providers and hundreds of other small providers for very exciting solutions in the field of Knowledge Management. In my years in working in collaboration, networking, records management, etc. I have come to the conclusion that the actual choice in technology is not that important to the success; other factors are influencing this decision. Far more important in my eyes is, the way you are implementing your technology; how do you design your solution. Here five major points for consideration from my experience.

Limit Choices

In the tool, provide the user with clear directions; how to use your application; provide pre-defined selections. For example, where users can apply keywords, implement a suggest-as-you-type list of existing/recommended keywords.
If you provide a suite of applications, limit this suite to a clear set of tools that have defined usage and avoid redundant functionality. The user needs to be clear which tool to use for which purpose. In such a suite, also provide a single point of access; for example, create a mashup site as an entry to the suite.

Remove Clutter

Your user will appreciate a clear design that is focusing on the essentials. Simplicity is a well discussed and described in many places; e.g. The Laws of Simplicity. Review each text element, button, field if it’s really necessary and brings value to the user. Use graphical elements to explain things and implement a design with nice colours – maximum five. And don’t forget: your application should be sexy and make fun when using.

Minimise Steps

This is a old web design philosophy: with each click you are loosing traffic; the same applies for your knowledge sharing application. Each click is a barrier and will turn down your user. Maybe the are willing to suffer the first time but then they wont come back. Re-evaluate your process, each step, if they are necessary. For example, evaluate how much information for uploaded content is mandatory, how much meta-data will be really used later, and how many people should approve content, really! On our service, we have continuously reduced the amount of categories and received very positive response.

Integrate with E-Mail

In an ideal world, we would be much less dependent on e-mail; we should use mash-up pages and use our applications directly; no need for e-mail notifications. In reality, we are still far away from this stage. People’s most used application is e-mail and don’t forget this. Allow people to subscribe to e-mail notifications on their favourite topics. Move a step further, and allow people to create content by sending e-mails to your application. Nice examples for this are Highrise and Basecamp by 37signals; these tool provide a very neat integration and allow users to respond to forum questions and send client e-mails to the system.


Cloud Computing is in everbody’s mind and mouth. In order to make your solution successful, allow users to access your tool wherever they are and with any device they prefer. Web applications allow the users to access the tools from the office, from home, while travelling… from any preferred location without relying on their company laptop. Further, people have ideas while commuting or while travelling and they want to share immediately; provide your user the possibility to access the main functionality from their smart-phone or tablets.

These are the five topics, I try to focus on when designing an application; and they are particularly important for knowledge sharing tool because these activities are never the first priority. The more appealing we design and the less barriers we create, the more successful the tool will be.

Look around what others are doing; benchmark with state of the art tools; note, these are not necessarily created by the established providers. Adapt to your needs; copy the good stuff and continuously improve wherever you can.

Last but not least, ask your audience for feedback! Very quickly you get stuck in your own view and overlook the most obvious mistakes. Seek for key users’ opinion before you launch new functions. Continuously request for feedback from a broad audience. It has always been striking for me to listen to feedback and to realise quickly we developed internal blindness.

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