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The Missing Link

The Missing Link

A veteran in data warehousing and data management, Centrelink had to deliver the missing link: provide the right information at the right time to the right person in the right placeWhile the discipline of knowledge management stays -- metaphorically -- in nappies, few organisations will find delivering knowledge to client desktops a straightforward task. For Centrelink, however, this vision is becoming a reality much faster than anyone had a right to expect. Centrelink is one of Australia's largest organisations, springing late last year from the loins of the Department of Social Security, and already a veteran in data warehousing and information management. Now the organisation is pushing the edge of the technological envelope and starting to deliver on its "promise of knowledge" to some of the most demanding knowledge workers in Australia. In an earlier incarnation as head of Centrelink's Information Management and Services Branch, Kate Muir used to tell staff that the systems group dealt in data, but that they had to deal in information. "Your job", she told them, "is to build constructs around available data, then aggregate it and provide all the associated information needed to make it truly useful." These days Muir has a much broader agenda. As national manager of Centrelink's 140-strong Knowledge Theme Team, Muir tells her staff knowledge is the be-all and end-all of their business. And knowledge, she says, is delivering the right information at the right time to the right person in the right place.

Yet Muir believes very few organisations have achieved this goal, although many may sincerely believe they have. "A lot of companies say they've got Lotus Notes so they've got knowledge. A lot of people think information is knowledge.

In reality, very few people have yet made the step up to knowledge," Muir says.

"We've done a lot of work in the last six months conceptualising knowledge, and we've used all the serious research. These days our position is that information is fine, but it is only when a person uses the information -- has the information in their head -- that it becomes knowledge." The outcome is that Centrelink's view of what is "the right information" is far broader than that held by most organisations. For instance, Centrelink is now determined to integrate e-mail, text and document management into its knowledge management system. "My role is to set the strategic direction for knowledge in this organisation; it is also to make sure, within that big context, that I have a knowledge infrastructure that supports it. In my team at the moment the projects are such that all the people are working on delivery of knowledge to the desktop; but in fact knowledge has become much bigger than this," Muir says.

"Knowledge is an organisational competence we must have here to survive. The People Team talks about Centrelink as a learning organisation. The mirror side to that is we must be a knowledge organisation. And to do that you have to think about what knowledge means to this organisation and to our bottom line.

We have 25,000 knowledge workers plus about 700 over at DSS, and now Deetya and Health and Family Services are using our figures. To deliver, we seriously have to think about what pieces of information they want."Learning Curve Centrelink was launched in September last year to streamline delivery of government services by merging a range of services previously delivered by Department of Social Security (DSS); Department of Employment, Education, Training and Youth Affairs (Deetya); Department of Health and Family Services, and Department of Primary Industries and Energy. In the transition, the bulk of the former DSS staff transferred to the massive new body and the 700-strong remainder, which now operates as a policy body, became important clients for the knowledge that the Centrelink Knowledge Theme Team delivers. DSS' relationship with Centrelink is covered by a Business Partnership Agreement that sets out a framework for the service arrangements between DSS and Centrelink. The Agreement details the information, products and services the Department (as purchaser) requires Centrelink (as the provider) to deliver to customers on its behalf. DSS is currently Centrelink's biggest "client". Muir says with 24,000 staff, about 7.8 million payments, and with three major government departments as principal clients, Centrelink finds every IT job tends to scale "exponentially and monumentally". And those who Muir calls her "gun" users -- the policy makers -- can be demanding "in the extreme", without having the faintest idea of the technological limitations underlying their demands. "They know exactly what they want, but don't understand the IT support behind it; and, therefore, they don't understand that we are often limited by the fact that we are on the edge of the envelope."Classic Mistakes In its bids to deliver on these demands over many years, DSS had won a reputation as an "early adopter" and made all the classic data warehousing mistakes long before anyone had even heard the term "data warehouse". "All the reading we have done now says that we made all the classic mistakes," Muir says. "We had trouble getting the users to specify things. Then, when the users wouldn't take responsibility for their half of the effort, we didn't enforce the issue. The technology wasn't there; and we had Model 204 in our environment as the database for the big systems. Also the big systems weren't integrated at that time." Despite the difficulties, DSS had "the first glimmerings" of a data warehouse as early as 1988, with the system evolving over time. Before Centrelink came into being last year, Muir says there was a pressing need to combine the output of the statistical analysis unit (which looked after trend information) and the business information area (which looked after performance indicators).

"When it came to putting the two groups together, the two figures never looked the same, because the groups used different business rules for the extracts, and they extracted at different times. Our job was to clean it all up, make it more effective, and make the figures match. So we did a huge amount of re-engineering of those processes," Muir says. "We put a lot of it out onto a system that we took from the Business Information System, which we rebuilt and called the Managers' Desktop. That was the first real GUI front end which we delivered. We also had an area in another part of the organisation, which did data extracts for us to our specifications that has also now been included in the Knowledge Team." Determined not to reinvent the wheel, Muir and her team looked at a range of software tools -- many of them while still vapourware -- including a "brilliant product" called SuperCROSS from Australian company SpaceTime Research in Melbourne. SuperCROSS is a high-performance analysis and planning tool designed for working with very large unit record databases via a powerful cross-tabulation engine. It can process more than 10 million records per minute in complex cross-tabulation on a standard Pentium PC and 50 million records per minute on a mid-range NT server. It also provides sub-tables.

"So we seized on that because it allowed us to tabulate the large [amount of] trend information data required. When we first started with it, the ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) was using it. The ABS of course are world-class." "But ABS only needs to put data out once every five years, whereas we need to put it out every three months. So we couldn't get enough benefit to justify the amount of work we would have had to do to put it into the database. SpaceTime Research listened to all our issues and concerns and came back and said 'have another look at it'. And the thing flies," Muir says.

Using SuperCROSS, the team can deliver several snapshots to managers to help policy analysis. A range of snapshots lets managers "get a feel" for the impact of policy on particular demographic areas. They can compare and contrast to see how things change over a given period. This means they can better assess whether a particular policy is working. And since many of those involved in making policy have a statistical background, they do a lot of extrapolation and can use the knowledge provided to help them model. Muir says the policy modellers are the biggest number crunchers the organisation has.

The team collects the information that groups of managers with common needs will need from data sitting in numerous places throughout the organisation, and delivers it to its SuperCROSS database, which effectively acts as their personal data mart. "Once we started on this we started to re-examine the seriousness of the huge information warehouse that would hold all of the information that we needed and so we could fan the marts from that. We are looking into the means of delivering that now," Muir says. "Every manager on the WAN now receives a version of the Managers' Desktop, which provides them with performance information. We have more than a hundred databases and flat files in a virtual warehouse; all information marts use data from these. We put together exactly what the client wants, then train them on the use of it. The multicultural people have just been trained on the SuperCROSS system and they're just blown away by what we have achieved. In fact, the manager rang to thank me and said even he, a self-described "luddite" on IT, found it easy to use and excellent for these big numbers." Cognos is also becoming an important component of knowledge delivery. Customer segment teams -- those people who look after particular segments of the population, such as old age pensioners -- have contractual arrangements with client departments and the Knowledge Team must do the reporting. "We sat down with one of the customer segment teams, and they went through this partnership agreement with a fine tooth comb, examining every single outcome and every output measure," Muir says. "So we massaged all the statistics and put it up onto our Web page as a Web-enabled management report, and managers can pull up area offices and see how they are performing." As this process advances, Cognos will become increasingly important for its ability to allow managers of those teams to examine performance indicators in any form they desire. "My business is to get us out of sending out reports that do 20 per cent or 80 per cent of what they want," Muir says. "My business is to allow them to have the kind of product on their desk that allows them to get 100 per cent of the information they want. It is to let them do the report they need, then surf around in that to get a feel for where their trends are coming from, because that is what they need to manage their processes."The team is also using a Web-like interface to deliver tailored text information to managers. Muir says as well as general information such as the DSS guide, DSS Act, general human resource information and explanatory notes, the group is also putting up information designed for particular customer segment teams. In fact, the group has been so successful the team which prepared the Centrelink Reference Suite won an Australia Day medal this year.

The Suite is a system that transforms a vast store of standard operating procedures into a more easily accessible desktop reference library. The response to the way the Reference Suite was set up was staggering. It was innovative, it was fast, and people were generally delighted. "The Reference Suite looks like a Web front," Muir says. "It isn't yet, because we don't have the Web freely available yet. So we actually deliver it as a software package; but when you open it up, it has various ways of getting the piece of text that you want. "We are 'Web-ising' it, but we have a lot of work to do to get to that and the Web is not out on every desk yet." Muir also says the organisation is seeing a lot of value in providing Lotus Notes. "We see Notes as being a resource holder -- a form of corporate memory -- particularly as a repository for discussion databases," she says. "If project information is stored in such a way that the general chat stuff also is collated at the end of the process, then when the next project comes up with similar issues involved managers have an important resource at their fingertips."Client Intimacy Ensuring that managers get the knowledge they need when they need it is becoming an art form. Muir has a team of people working with managers as client liaison officers, and says the results have been worth the effort. These hand-picked individuals are chosen as much for their personal aptitude as their ability to understand the business. "We call it client intimacy. These people are like good IT vendors who take the trouble to get to know your business before telling you what they can do for you. We've put a lot of serious thought into this, and we quite carefully choose people who can be thought of as relationship managers, because we know it is more cost-effective to do any job twice rather than five times. "And the reason the last Cognos rollout was such a blinder is that the client liaison officer spent a lot of time with those users and the users were totally committed to a quality product." The next big step will be to find a way to integrate the Web-based information with the performance information being delivered in the Managers' Desktop. With document management, including management of e-mail, came the concept of managing all the paper client records and administrative records sitting in diverse locations around the country. Muir's vision is to create one huge knowledge warehouse from the repositories of information located throughout Centrelink, both text and numerical, from which the group could fan information marts out.

"There's no technology to do it yet. People tell me there is, but I think it is still vapourware. But I have put together a team of people to work through how text and document management, both electronic and paper, will work in this organisation. That means getting in one of the big document management systems. "And in my head this is absolutely integrated with all current knowledge management, because we have looked at the Gartner and Meta Group figures and they have some horrifying statistics about the time people spend looking for pieces of paper to do their work. They actually say it takes four days out of five to collate some information. "The information isn't just on the reference suites, but in e-mails and in the admin files, and so on; that is all knowledge management. And that is why I say our view of knowledge -- of the right information -- is a much, much broader concept than most people have." Ultimately, Muir believes she can deliver the equivalent of an encyclopedia specifically tailored for the organisation. "We should be able to have all the reference material up in a form like Encyclopaedia Britannica that is easy to read, easy to access, that provides pictures and diagrams where they are needed and which lets users move in and out of the bits they want.

"We are also trying to work out some user profiles so the managers working with 'families', for instance, don't have to log their way through 'disabilities' or whatever to get to 'families'. "If they are human resource people, what will always come up for them first will be the people information. Now we are only just starting to conceptualise that, but it is all part of delivering the right information. "In our view, knowledge starts out as tacit. Somebody has this idea, they test it out, then they codify it, it goes around the loop and then it gets shifted and changed. So knowledge is ever shifting, and some of it comes out of your head, some of it comes out of a file . . . Our job is to bring it all together and make sure it is there when it is needed. We have stewardship of Centrelink's knowledge," Muir says.

Make Your Knowledge King

1. Identify knowledge. The first step in packaging knowledge involves identifying general domains or specific topics and then finding the knowledge that fits those topics. Ways to assemble that knowledge include conducting new research such as benchmarking activities or cataloguing employee experiences.

2. Segment your audience. Identify the targeted recipients for the knowledge and sort them into groups. One example of likely groupings includes CEOs and other executives, senior managers, managers and all other staff. Identify the fewest segments possible, but make sure they're mutually exclusive.

3. Customise content. Select the relevant information from the knowledge base (for example, reports, process diagrams) and tailor it for each segment. Be sure to provide the appropriate level of detail for each audience. A project manager, for instance, requires a level of detail about resource scheduling practices that a business unit leader likely would find a distracting annoyance. Context is important. Present the information so each user can readily see the connection with his or her tasks and responsibilities.

4. Choose an appropriate format. Select one or more formats -- paper, electronic, video, multimedia -- for delivering the intellectual material.

Reports and other paper documents offer portability and are the most familiar format for learning. Electronic documents offer easy customisation and updating and can be e-mailed or posted on an intranet. Video or other multimedia can add visual interest and interactivity. As with any marketing strategy, a distribution plan for intellectual capital must identify the end user and their buying habits. Recipients' preferred methods of learning should be taken into account when choosing a format. For some, courses or seminars suit their learning styles, while others prefer self-paced, computer-based training. The size of the target audience is also important if only to achieve economies and get the most from the investment in packaging.

5. Organise content. Tables of contents and indexes that allow quick and meaningful navigation save time, avoid frustration and encourage frequent use.

The best layouts facilitate skimming as well as reading, place key points in prominent position and, for electronic documents, provide hypertext links and search capability when possible.

6. Market-test format and content. The content should be tested and revised based on the reaction of a sample of end users. Give the pilot group a checklist for rating the package's usability, clarity and overall value. Ask for specific suggestions for improving it. Incorporate those suggestions and test the results. Remember: the users know best how they find, employ and apply information and knowledge to do their jobs well. -- Paul Myers and Richard Swanborg Jr.

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More about ABS AustraliaAustralian Bureau of StatisticsCentrelinkCognosDepartment of EmploymentDepartment of HealthGartnerMeta GroupSystems GroupTraining and Youth Affairs

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