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When Worlds Collide    [Date Added : 05/26/2005 ]
Dr. R. Todd Stephens, writing for, has some interesting observations concerning the future of electronic knowledge sharing and collaboration based on our evolving understanding of the Internet, intranet and meta data.

Stephens, director of Meta Data Services Group for the BellSouth Corporation, starts out by noting the value of the intranet. He says that the "intranet" was born out of the need for groups to facilitate internal communication across geographical and time boundaries. By using common Internet protocols, or core technologies, groups can easily communicate, distribute information and facilitate project collaboration across the entire enterprise while keeping unauthorized users out.

Intranets are appealing because of the savings due to decreased printing, duplicating and distribution costs. A second driving force behind the rapid growth of intranets is that the technology is extremely intuitive and easy to use without much training. Employees use hypertext links to search for and access text, graphics, audio or video - all organized into home pages. At the basic level, a group can do away with many costly corporate documents that are now produced on paper, such as human resources guides, newsletters, annual reports, maps, company facilities, price lists, product information literature - any document that is of value within the corporation.

Intranets also are used to deliver software upgrades, provide marketing and sales support, disseminate training materials and schedules and provide employees with access to internal help desk knowledge bases. Teams can use them to exchange information and share data when working on collaborative projects.

This information is generally only accessible to employees, consultants and contractors that are employed by the corporation. Information may extend to other business partners and relationships, such as outsourced development, extended supply chains or legal relationships. While the intranet has many similarities with its "cousin" the Internet, it also has many differences.

The information placed on the intranet is generally controlled and governed by organizational or political factors that are not present on the Internet. In many cases, intranets are limited to business and process-oriented information content which is generally built top down. This type of information is sometimes defined as "brand" information. Brand information can describe a business unit's or technology group's purpose, provide contact information, FAQs and detailed business processes.

Stephens observes that online intranet information is critically important and saves an enormous amount of phone calls, e-mails and conversations in order to discover who, what, where, when and how internal business needs to get done. Many of these business functions can be moved to the online environment and each organization should strive to push forward in this area. Still, intranets reward conformity versus innovation and the majority of the content is edited and governed beyond seeding any original thought.

Hence the difference between information applications built on passion (Internet) and ones built by salary (intranet). Stephens says that it would be reasonable to believe that the accuracy rate would increase and be directly proportional to the level of governance. Unfortunately, he notes, this is far from the truth. The organization is an evolving entity where employees, processes and structures are constantly evolving. While the information may have been accurate at the time of publishing, the accuracy begins to deteriorate very quickly. Which leads us to ask the question that haunts the Internet itself, is inaccurate information worse than no information?

Meta data within the corporate environment offers a superb opportunity to develop an environment where the full potential of meta data can be received. Even a large corporate intranet would not expand beyond a couple hundred thousand pages of content. If you think of meta data as a crop, then the intranet is like rich soil, while the Internet is like the desert.

According to Stephens, business is opening its doors to collaborative computing with wikis, blogs, groove environments and many other technologies that support collaboration efforts. The traditional intranet allowed the corporation to stay focused on the business and the management of the business processes. Intranets allowed us to streamline our internal processes and once again lower the cost of doing business. Intranets allowed us to manage our organizations and gain efficiencies unlike we have ever seen before. Now comes a new era, where the lines between Intranet and Internet are blurred. Questions that must be asked include:

- Will meta data succeed in these new environments as it has with intranets and repository technology?

- Does the corporation want employees spending time on wikis, blogs or discussion threads?

- How will the internal search engine differentiate between production business process information and general discussion?

- Will the trust with intranet information be broken by mixing collaborative knowledge?

- How will management handle the loss of control and governance?

- How do we transform the technology professional into the high-performance knowledge worker?

- How will the company value (ROI) collaborative efforts?

There are many success stories in the knowledge management world where collaborative applications have served the organization well. The Eureka story from Xerox is an excellent example of success in this area. While Eureka was collaborative in nature, the real value was from the focus on one specific "vertical" area of repair. Perhaps the answer lies within the Eureka story: focus collaborative efforts on a specific and narrow problem.

The Internet and intranet methodologies are like two galaxies colliding. We don't have a Hubble telescope to see what happens when these worlds crash into each other. Nor do we know how to define success because we have two different methods of measurement. Unlike galaxies that follow physical laws, colliding environments follow no rules and may very well have different results based on the physical collision of the stars (business units).

The rules are evolving at such a rate of change that it leads some experts to say, "If it works, then it is obsolete." Perhaps success is only a temporary state of existence that bursts out of the galactic collision but evaporates as the value flame dies out as quickly as it was created. David Weinberger defines this confusion where, "Common sense doesn't hold there, and uncommon sense hasn't yet emerged. No wonder we're having trouble figuring out how to build businesses in this new land. We don't yet even know how to talk about a place that has no soil, no boundaries, no near or far."

Stephens suggests that in the end, the best and worst of each environment will emerge. Many people believe that the collision will result in "death" of the smaller galaxy (intranet) and the growth of the larger one (Internet). However, the truth is that both galaxies will "die" and a new one will emerge as a "reincarnation" of value.

Over the past few years, we have seen a "reincarnation" in the basic definition of meta data and the integration into information intelligence. Perhaps, the collision is already upon us and we are simply seeing the cosmic result.

(extract of the article "Knowledge: The Essence of Meta Data: When Meta Data Galaxies Collide" by R. Todd Stephens,, March 17, 2005. Copyright 2005 DM Review and SourceMedia, Inc.)
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