In the know and on the move

In the know and on the move

By James Dellow

Sep 15, 2005: It has been said that knowledge knows no boundaries. But as knowledge workers begin to access technologies like personal area networks, wireless broadband, Voice over IP and 3G, can we finally say the same about knowledge management and make it truly mobile? James Dellow, principal consultant of information management consultancy firm Chief Technology Solutions, asks what is mobile knowledge management, how it adds value and how organisations should prepare

Only a few years ago, any discussion of mobile knowledge management would have only been of interest to academics and technology researchers. But now that mainstream technology has caught up with the theory, the potential for mobile knowledge management has been become somewhat more tangible to practitioners in ways that go beyond just accessing email on the move. But what exactly will mobile knowledge management do and how will it benefit organisations?

At the very minimum, mobile knowledge management must be about providing access to the same knowledge bases that are available to desktop users using wireless devices. But in this respect mobile knowledge management is not much of an advance on what we might call 'portable' knowledge management. For example, almost a decade ago, Ernst & Young was already making use of Lotus Notes' offline replication capabilities to provided users with special portable knowledge bases, called PowerPacks. These knowledge bases could be loaded on to laptop computers and were specifically designed to be portable by using content standards that aimed to maintain both size and content quality (what was referred to as the best of the best content).

Today, we can use thin-client computing to worry less about content size and simply push virtual desktop tools out to mobile or remote users. However, for the truly mobile, the screen and keyboard size on a mobile phone or wireless PDA are a barrier to practical use. So if mobility is to be more than portability, what other value might mobile knowledge management provide?

We can get some clues from the social software space by looking at how consumers are using mobile technologies to support social networks. Technology companies, such as Nokia and HP, are leading the way with demonstrating some ideas for mobile social applications. For example:

- Nokia's Sensor ( software allows users with a Bluetooth-enabled mobile phone to seek out like minded people within their immediate vicinity; and
- HP's StoryCast ( provides a way of recording digital stories using a camera equipped smart phone or PDA.

While the business use of such software may not be immediately clear, the growing interest in social networks, communities of practice and the use of narrative and storytelling techniques within organisations will generate demand for a new generation of KM tools that help employees to record events and facilitate serendipity using tools that are familiar and intuitive.

Still not convinced? We can take a more analytical approach to these technologies and drill down to take a closer look at the fundamental units of technology in mobile social applications. When we do that we can identify two key themes:

1. Support for rich, interactive, multimedia communication and capture.
2. Context awareness in terms of presence, proximity and locality.

To understand the value of this functionality, imagine how the classic case study on Xerox engineers sharing ideas on fixing photocopiers would have been enhanced with mobile knowledge management. If you are not familiar with this early example of knowledge management in practice, the story of this case study is based around a community of practice involving photocopier engineers who swapped stories and experiences through informal meetings. If they had access to mobile knowledge management tools, such as camera phones, they would have had the ability to capture stories as they worked and then share them in real-time with each other, adding annotations using text or voice.

But we can go even further - context awareness would automatically add metadata to these stories to record details of the people involved and where it happened. Then in real time this same context awareness would allow other engineers to quickly make contact with the nearest or available engineer if they wanted to discuss a similar problem or seek assistance.

If you think this scenario is far fetched then consider Australia-based developer Locatrix, which has created a software suite that works over cellular or WiFi networks to provide what it calls a single view of a subscribers availability, status and location. The context awareness forms the basis for creating opportunities for contact, collaboration, productivity and innovation. Again, if we expand the possibilities then we can also see opportunities to increase the value of information by pushing knowledge to the right person, at the right time and when they are in the right place.

Overall when we look at the trends and understand the potential in this technology, it becomes clear that what will make mobile knowledge management really powerful will be applications and tools that combine rich, interactive, multimedia content with context awareness. This will open the way for collaborative applications that help people to connect to people, places and things. Of course, there are some barriers to mobile knowledge management, with workplace privacy an immediate concern. Other issues include:

- Standardisation of communication and context protocols to ensure mobile knowledge management is pervasive across different systems and devices;
- Information architectures that can support content access on devices ranging from smart phones to wide screen laptops; and
- Planning and development of networking infrastructure (both within and external to organisations) so that mobile knowledge management is available at any time and from any location.

The imperative today for organisations planning information systems is that they must begin designing architectures that will support mobile knowledge management. The current view of knowledge management systems-typically those supported by document-centric intranets-is extremely limited and fails to reflect both the changes in user expectations that are developing from their own use of consumer social technologies, as well as the changing nature of knowledge work that is itself becoming more mobile.

Unfortunately, mobile knowledge management and the technologies that support it are still emerging. This means that information system and knowledge managers must work together to apply strategic thinking to the evolution of mobile knowledge management or risk losing control as technology leaps ahead without you. Together they can prepare for this challenge by:

- Understanding the changes in technology and knowledge work that are driving the development of mobile knowledge management;
- Analysing the strategic context of your knowledge management system today and what will be needed moving forward; and
- Designing a new system architecture that will facilitate this change so it is progressive, evolutionary and beneficial rather than chaotic, revolutionary and disruptive.

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