April 05, 2001, 2:08 PM — KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT'S dirty little secret: However much you invest in high-tech knowledge banks, employees in search of an answer tend to make their first port of call the folks they know from the water cooler.
Giant consultancy Pricewaterhouse-Coopers is no different, concedes Julia Collins, its London-based head of global knowledge management. While PWC has considerable investment in formal knowledge management databases, the Kraken, an informal and unofficial Lotus Notes e-mail list, has been garnering more attention lately. Named after a mythological sea monster in a poem by Lord Tennyson, the Kraken is a sort of global glue, sharing knowledge across national borders.
Q: What exactly is the Kraken?
A: It's a discussion database -- but one that works through e-mail. It's there every morning when you log in, and you look at it if you've got time, and you don't look at it if you haven't. It builds connections to people in very diverse parts of the world who do each other favors by providing information. It doesn't compete with our more formal knowledge management systems; it's more additive. The formal knowledge management systems capture and share explicit information -- and generally information that is well documented and formatted. With the Kraken, people ask questions; other people answer those questions. Everybody on the mail list sees all the traffic: the questions and responses, and the responses to those responses.
Q: Who uses it? And for what?
A: About 600 people are on the list at the moment. They tend to be reasonably senior people, usually asking quite complex questions: "I'm trying to do this particular thing -- has anyone done it?" or "Where have we done it, and what did we encounter?" That kind of thing. And they tend to ask those questions after they have exhausted the easier options, especially within their own countries. Alternative approaches to capturing knowledge, such as post-engagement reviews, don't really replace the need to chat through a problem. For that, the Kraken is very good. The information passed is more informal and context specific than the documented knowledge that we hold in most of the databases.
Q: Was it complicated to set up?
A: It was really, really straightforward to set up. It's a simple mail group under Lotus Notes. To be added to the mail list, you just send a request asking to be added. There wasn't any prior approval required to set it up, and it doesn't really require funding. It just works.