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Putting Knowledge to Work


Knowledge management has spawned a lot of theoretical discussion, but how do you put it to work to achieve – and quantify – real benefits for businesses? Peter Turnbull, SER’s UK head of marketing, goes back to Shakespeare to bring to life working solutions for companies today.



It is a proposition almost universally acknowledged today that companies’ ability to exploit the knowledge of their people, of their processes and of the raw information flowing throughout their businesses is a – if not the – major source of competitive advantage in the global economy (old and new).

This applied knowledge, or intellectual capital, lies at the heart of today’s frenetic transition from industrial to knowledge-based economy and from physical assets (such as land and materials) to the intangible.

Ten years into the longest recorded economic upswing in US history, management gurus daily preach the gospel of technology, globalisation and competition. We celebrate the speed of change and the potential for rapid growth and innovation.

But the keyword is potential: where and what are the tools and techniques which will allow us to fulfil it?



The Knowledge Barrier

To be of value, data needs to be captured, stored as information, organised into knowledge, personalised, distributed and shared, adapted and exploited. In itself this statement is true of all human historical development and it applies to all industries – not just those with high technology flavours.

But what is different today is that we have focused information and communications technology with great efficiency to deliver a quantum leap in both the volume, and speed, of new information generated. Problem is: it threatens to engulf us all.

In this context, the manual knowledge-labourer is actually a barrier. He/she can only read, absorb and apply 50-100 pages of information each day and, quite literally, sometimes cannot see the wood from the trees.

Daily, major innovations – and whole series of dependent innovations – may remain unknown unless we augment humankind’s intellectual processing power to learn, share and target knowledge. Arguably this challenge - to build a complementary enabling technology which will facilitate a radical improvement in information management and decision-making – is the most important current research task. We need to break decisively free from the procedures of the past and the deployment of conventional rule-based software.


Beyond biology

Somewhat elegantly, the key to escaping this biological constraint lies in one of nature’s great survival tools – mimickry. In this case to mimic, and accelerate, the human learning process in the form of electronic neural networks and by using a special patented algorithm.

At the heart of this software is an integrated classification and search engine. It classifies stores and sorts information in ways that were previously only possible if individuals read it personally. Crucially, this engine learns by example: it is trained by people who show it how they would read and make decisions on the basis of available information.

The basis of the software learning process is a number of groups of sample documents. These are collectively known as a ‘learn set’.

What we are talking about is much more than document management or workflow (although they are part of it). Rather it is ‘knowledge logistics’ – that is bringing learned and applied decision-making to a mass market for the first time.

The Bard in question

But what does this mean in practice? To focus the potential, a recent experiment tasked a new system with solving the riddle of Henry VIII – a play whose authorship has been in dispute for 150 years but which is conventionally attributed to a partnership between Shakespeare and his highly popular contemporary, John Fletcher.

The system ‘learnt’ Shakespeare, Fletcher and (as a control) another contemporary, Christopher Marlowe by being introduced to selected works from their canons – the ‘learn set’ defined above. Then it was shown a variety of plays by other authors, including Henry VIII.

The result, where no other play scored above 16% probability of authorship by the Bard, the verdicts for Henry VIII were more or less conclusive – even in scenes often allocated to Fletcher.

This finding, however, is not the punchline. Once inputting was complete, the system delivered its results in just five minutes. By contrast, to undertake much more limited and inconclusive textual analysis manually would take many man-months - if not man-years.


Scene-change: the Bard at work

If now we time-shift from the turn of the seventeenth to the beginning of the twenty-first century and move from dusty folio editions to electronic mail, we can begin to assess the commercial impact of such a system.

Simply step into the average company mailroom. Watch the staff there sort and classify a daily flood of information. Follow that information as it trickles through the organisation during the day and observe it conflict with heterogeneous, often non-compatible sources flowing from websites, email, fax and voice.

In such a context, implementing knowledge-enabled software to learn highly repetitive actions such as reading, evaluating, routing and indeed re-defining work processes adds dramatically to an organisation’s efficiency.

This is illustrated specifically, for example at AXA Colonia, one of Germany’s leading building and loan associations, which processes over 300,000 items of customer correspondence each year. Previously this was a highly labour intensive mailroom activity requiring the four-strong staff to spend several days each month manually to scan and classify incoming mail and then to distribute it to relevant departments for further processing.

Now using knowledge-enabled software, all incoming correspondence is classified into 50 distinct categories and the policy number extracted from each to provide a link to the policy history. Documents are then distributed electronically and tracked through the remainder of the process.

A second more specialised example is provided by the Mannheim head office of German DIY pioneer, Bauhaus which operates over 170 facilities in nine European countries. Daily the recipient of over 6000 supplier invoices, it has deployed knowledge-based software to implement automatic invoice processing and integrated document management and to deliver automated data entry and auditing processes.


From efficiency to value

There are also enormous ‘effectiveness’ benefits to be harvested. Release your staff from their roles as ‘information caretakers’ and they can work with the technology to become highly proficient ‘knowledge generators’.

This process is underway at Union Krankenversicherung (UKV), Europe’s eighth largest private health insurer where a similar system was recently introduced – initially to process an estimated 800 daily foreign travel insurance forms, later to manage an estimated 10,000 claims forms.

The ultimate goal of the UKV implementation is to set up an information management infrastructure by which data will be sorted entirely independently of data type (e.g. fax, email) and style (form, free writing). This will support delivery of the high volumes of information required in health management – specifically in the claims arena.

The price of intelligence

Meanwhile, another major insurer is going the next step and using the system to learn, and analyse, the often highly complex and technical content of medical claims documentation. Where previously manual clerks could only validate simple key points (e.g. date, source of claim, type of illness), knowledge-enabled software is learning and assessing the core content – and checking for fraud or medical error.

This is the equivalent of moving the Shakespeare debate (reviewed above) beyond simple stylistic issues such as word frequency into an understanding of complete patterns. But in this context, such intelligence has a price: potentially a 20% saving in a multi-billion dollar annual bill, according to the company.

Riding the information wave

As we put knowledge to work, it’s critical to appreciate that the type of intelligent learning engine which I have described here is not limited to storage and retrieval of language-based knowledge. It can also learn how knowledge workers move information within an organisation – that is procedural knowledge which, in turn, can open up the DNA of any business.

Meanwhile, as humans gain more time so they can add real value to the knowledge development of the organisation. Finally, traditional IT can assume a new role as a powerful tool supporting knowledge workers in their personal and collective knowledge creation and managements.

Today, in the aftermath of the dot.com collapses, it’s fashionable to decry those who predicted enormous new economy gains. Yet given learning engines which can allow humankind to capture and deploy knowledge thousands of times faster than at any period in recorded history, their pronouncements may come to seem ultra-conservative. Our ride on the information wave promises to be an exhilirating one.
- ends -

Peter Turnbull is UK head of marketing for SER Systems. He can be reached on [email protected]



In this month's edition of Document Management Update:

Lotus unveils Raven Discovery Server. more>>
Deutsche Bank chooses IBM WebSphere Translation Server. more>>
Zurich deploys Autonomy in worldwide risk engineering extranet. more>>
Feature: The need for content management. more>>
eRooms launches eRooms 5.0 - Richard Croasdale finds out how the company plans to differentiate collaboration tool from Microsoft rival. more>>
Documentum launches 4i Portal content edition. more>>

Other knowledge management features:

Content management — helping create order out chaos. Knowledge management maybe an oxymoron — albeit a useful one — but there are certainly parts of our intellectual capital that we can manage much more effectively. more>>

UNLOCKING THE VALUE OF KNOWLEDGE. Knowledge management as a concept has received much attention of late, but that does not alter the fact that many businesses are not realising the benefits of exploiting the knowledge available to them. However, in the current turbulent business climate, few companies can afford to let this valuable resources remain untapped. more>>

Information overreach - With 2.8 million public websites and approximately 800 million web pages (and counting), the challenge of finding the right business information quickly and easily is difficult, at best. more>>
Putting Knowledge to Work. Knowledge management has spawned a lot of theoretical discussion, but how do you put it to work to achieve – and quantify – real benefits for businesses? Peter Turnbull, SER’s UK head of marketing, goes back to Shakespeare to bring to life working solutions for companies today. more>>
Knowledge is power, as the saying goes. Ernst & Young understands this better than most - the firm has one of the largest knowledge infrastructures in the world and is the only professional services firm to have been recognized as one of the world's top five "Most Admired Knowledge Enterprises" in each of the last two years. more>>
In favour of GM insurers. more>>
feature. more>>

 

 

 

 

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