The know-how of e-commerce

The know-how of e-commerce

Cross-pollinating consumer portals with corporate information management expertise is a natural fit, writes Paul Montgomery.

Knowledge management (KM) and e-commerce are two of the most exciting, and possibly the most misunderstood, trends in computing in the late '90s. Combining them might seem more trouble than it is worth (see news story on Insight and Zivo, page 2). They can be used together in a mutually advantageous way - not because they are technologies which are a natural fit, but because they both rely on the same underlying technological tectonics.

The reason they both work, and are so attractive, lies in the mantra made popular by Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy: 'The network is the computer." I'm not suggesting they must rely on Sun servers, although some KM and e-commerce systems do. The message is that everyday drudgery-like functions normally carried out by humans can be automated by software sitting on servers in air-conditioned rooms.

The way that consumers interact with Web sites is very similar to the way company employees are starting to use their desktops.

Consider the function of searching. In the normal analogue shopping experience, a person will perform the ancient hunter-gatherer role, browsing through various shops like book stores. The shopper will fondle a hard-cover, skim the first page of a John Grisham, and then choose a Mills & Boon because it has Fabio on the cover. On the Internet, this process is much more streamlined. The shopper types in "romance book by Fabio" at a book-selling site like Amazon, and hey presto, it's Fabio-a-rama, with links to dozens of Fabio-covered epics. If that's what you like.

Inside the corporate world where knowledge management systems are starting to appear, there are definite parallels to be drawn. The old way of things is still based on the Stone Age hunt, through paper-based indexes instead of supermarket shelves but the process isn't that different. The new methodology also performs the menial tasks at the server level, with exotic beasties like knowledge agents even getting to know what sort of information the employee wants so that it can deliver it before a search is made.

So it can be seen that KM and e-commerce are moving in the same direction. Both technologies are delivered through thin clients with Web interfaces, and the way that consumers interact with Web sites is very similar to the way company employees are starting to use their desktops. This is nowhere more evident in the concept of the portal, which has graduated beyond buzzword status to become part of the Web lexicon in the consumer world, and is only now being introduced to internal corporate environments as the enterprise information portal.

Merging the applications, or at least making sure they can interoperate, is a good idea because each can benefit from the features of the other. Knowledge management vendors could do with a bit of experience from the harsh consumer world where the way an application interacts with the user is a live-or-die experience for a merchant.

E-commerce applications are crying out for the sort of agent technology which is being developed by the more innovative vendors of KM systems.

The real benefits, however, arrive when either or both of those systems are integrated fully with back end systems through less sexy technologies such as workflow and middleware. Because KM and e-commerce are so reliant on server functionality, in effect they are only as good as the weakest link in the client/server chain.

What these two technologies do, especially when working in an integrated fashion, is to formalise a lot of processes that would have been performed on an ad hoc basis, so that the idiosyncrasies of the humans and software involved in an e-commerce transaction or a KM-generated activity don't get in between the company and its customers and employees.

Hmmm, you might think, that's all very well, but no one would be doing anything like that now, with Y2K around the corner, surely? Think again. This is why the Bank of Queensland is starting its $16 million IT make-over with two implementations: middleware and workflow (the other news story on page 2). The applications that actually pay off on return on investment come later, but the Bank is one Australian organisation which knows the score, and post-2000 it will be well prepared to put the points on the board.Will you?