Working Knowledge

Working Knowledge

According to inventor Thomas Edison, 'Genius is 1 per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.' Likewise, implementing knowledge management on an organisation-wide basis is no overnight projectWhen a major part of your duties involves steering the federal government clear of trouble on a range of contentious legal issues from Native Title Law to Security Law, corporate memory matters a lot. Indeed, a working knowledge of the law is not even moderately adequate in a field where components of the full body of Australian case law and selections from the entire gamut of commonwealth and state legislation could become important to your duties in the course of any working day.

To supplement their own memories, staff of the commonwealth attorney-general's department need frequent access to commonwealth legislation, original, amending and amended acts, subordinate legislation, and some state and territory legislation; not to mention judgements handed down by commonwealth courts, commonwealth tribunals and some state and territory courts. All of that information has to be readily accessible at any time.

The department has some 55GB of text documents stored on various servers, significant portions of which must be readily available to staff in geographically dispersed locations. For example, a team made up of people from Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne presented one case that went to court not so long ago. Attorney-general's has been grappling with ways to deliver those huge volumes of corporate knowledge almost since its inception, and first turned to technology to help with the job in 1977.

But while some organisations have turned to artificial intelligence, neural networks or other sophisticated technologies to help deliver their corporate memory, attorney-general's is satisfying its needs with a far simpler solution.

Today its initial implementation of electronically searchable, mainframe-based full text databases, which first gave it a reputation as an early adopter of technology, has evolved into a sophisticated intranet which is helping it more effectively manage and distribute its electronic documents.

Now, says assistant director, business delivery, Neil Lynch, the success of that project, begun in the mid '70s, is evident. There are more publishers of information to the intranet all the time; the number of documents published is continually rising; and management is also beginning to find it a useful tool for the dissemination of information. But, Lynch says, while an intranet can be quick, relatively easy and inexpensive, it does not come free. Not only does it take planning and commitment -- especially when it comes to publishing a "real" database rather than just text documents -- but developers must also be prepared to change the system relatively often, without necessarily always following the latest technology.

"Attorney-general's intranet could not have happened without the important contribution made by all involved -- from the publishers through to the application programmers and communications and server specialists," says Lynch.

Furthermore, he says, it needs much more than mere technology to be successful.

Crunch Time

Attorney-general's serves the government, and through them all Australians, by providing a range of legal and law-related services; it is the central policy and coordinating element of the attorney-general's portfolio under the attorney-general and minister for justice. The department has been providing high quality public sector legal services and legal policy advice since Federation to the attorney-general and the government; federal departments and agencies; and the wider community and business. And it has probably been pursuing knowledge management for almost as long as it has been in business.

While the portfolio is large and diverse, with a common thread of legal policy, legal administration and law enforcement, the "core" department has always until recently considered to be the attorney-general's department and the Australian government solicitor. "Attorney-general's has been operating in both the public ('risk averse') sector and the user pays/user choice (semi-commercial), environment for a number of years," says Lynch.

"As of 1 July 1998, the AGS (Australian government solicitor) component will become a separate entity operating in a purely commercial environment. If the AGS cannot provide reliable, cost-effective services to its clients, it will cease to exist. As can be seen from our 20-year journey in knowledge management, the move of the AGS to a commercial entity has not been the sole reason for the focus on knowledge management, but it certainly has provided a sharper focus.

"Initially the attorney-general's text databases were on mainframes managing relatively large volumes of text," says Lynch. "One of the early successes was the division of treasury into treasury and finance. Anecdotal evidence from the lawyers involved was that they were able to search for all references to treasury in the 1000 acts of parliament within six weeks. If they had performed this task by reading the legislation, they would have taken six months and not been confident they could have found all references."The department has implemented various technological innovations over the years, including a mainframe-based electronic records management system for general office files and a document management system involving networked servers to PCs on the desktop. When it implemented a national network with a PC on each desktop it adopted e-mail as the accepted form of information dissemination. The trouble was -- as the department soon found out -- e-mail only provides a memory if individuals choose to save a message.

"Relying on individuals to retain a copy is both inefficient (there could be 1800 copies) and erratic. There needed to be a simple method of dissemination that also provided a 'memory'," says Lynch. "There were multiple requirements to distribute information that needed widespread distribution but for which the cost was prohibitive. For example, the Corporate Plan should be distributed widely, but a printed copy for each member of staff would not be cost-effective.

"Electronic distribution was the obvious way, but how? At that time, BBS software was either too expensive in terms of dollars or system resources, so we had to settle for a 'claytons' system. This was only intended to be an interim solution until such time as the technology became available to provide a better solution. The 'claytons' system consisted of a master copy of information that was copied to each of our file servers for local access," he explains.

Attorney-general's expected the "claytons" system would use between 10 to 20MB after the first year. After two years they were prepared to see that rise to as much as 30MB. In actual fact, the system proved so successful that it had actually consumed 49MB after just six months, 90MB after a year and 180MB after two years, and that caused quite a few headaches. "We needed something that was more cost-effective and would provide the same, or better, functionality," says Lynch.

At the same time, the department was looking to migrate historic mainframe-based, large-text databases from 20-year-old technology to "something better". Ultimately, tender evaluation recommended an Internet-based solution to both problems. Today attorney-general's uses a couple of different hardware platforms, including four Unix servers, 10 NT servers, a couple of Macintosh servers and test and development machines. The Unix platforms are gradually being converted to NT as the platform of choice. With the exception of two servers handling the two largest systems, all Web servers run on part of the department's existing file servers.

These deliver the intranet to around 1800 desktops and a couple of Intel machines. Most servers are running Netscape's Enterprise server and Microsoft's Internet server, and all servers use text search software: Verity's Topic on the Unix platforms and MS-Internet Index Server on the NT machines. Databases of a gigabyte or more operate on the Unix platforms using the Topic software, while most users have Netscape version 3.0 as their browser.

"Even Netscape 3.0 is now, in Internet terms, 'old' technology," says Lynch, "but you do not have to chase the latest versions of software. If the software is providing the functionality required, why upgrade?"Attorney-general's operates a TCP/IP network running at 100Mbps on the backbone, with 10Mbps to the desktop. The wide-area links run at 64Kbps. Lynch says low speed links are causing so much concern the department is now investigating the best means of handling local caching of large documents of 1MB or more. "While 64Kbps is faster than the 28.8Kbps used for dial-up modems, the documents also tend to be larger and the users can be less tolerant.

Response times beyond 20 seconds can be cause for complaint," says Lynch. He says the use large documents, images, video and sound must be considered when companies seek to prepare an intranet.

But the intranet goes much further than merely publishing electronic versions of documents. Attorney-general's has a number of database applications using Web browsers as a front-end. This, Lynch says, has the major benefit of providing a consistent interface to applications, although the limitations of common gateway interface (CGI) are proving a problem. "More recent developments are working to overcome these limitations but are still to be completely successful in all environments," he says.

The department also provides FAQs (frequently asked questions) and threaded discussion groups. FAQs are used to publish a wide variety of information in a readily digestible form, but Lynch says although threaded discussion groups can work well, generally they have performed poorly requiring topics of interest across a range of people in geographically dispersed locations.

Legal Documents

The law is built on legislation and precedent established by judgements of the various courts and tribunals. Attorney-general's has been striving to manage its knowledge of what has happened in the commonwealth, state and territory legislatures and courts since Federation, initially via manual text search systems. Today it has more than 1.3 million documents in more than 40 databases available, using more than 10GB of disk space, accessed mainly by legislators, lawyers, other members of the legal profession, government agencies and law students. The Internet version of this information regularly receives more than 150,000 accesses per month, while there are 125,000 "hits" per month on the internal version.

The department also stores 11,500 "operational" documents, published by more than 150 authors and readily accessible via full text searches. These documents include human resource material, policies and guidelines on security, equipment use, contact with media and style manual, minutes of management meetings and reporting schedules, telephone lists and client information.

"Many areas produce operational documents of only limited interest but will, almost invariably, produce some documents that are of more general interest and need to be made available to a wider audience," says Lynch. "An intranet gives you the opportunity to make these documents readily available. For example, the documents behind the development of a policy on password security will not generally be of interest and probably should not be made generally available.

The policy itself must be available to all staff at all times. An intranet makes this possible."To manage information publishing, the department has eschewed the notion of bringing all documents to a central point, where one individual is responsible for collection and update of documents, their conversion into a form readable on the intranet and their management once published. Instead it devolved responsibility to the owners of the information and made them "liable" for content. Lynch says while doing so demands user resources, it has the advantage of putting responsibility on information owners. Almost all documents are published in their native format so publishers don't need to convert them to HTML before placing them on the intranet.

"We 'automatically' convert around 98 per cent of these documents into HTML, relieving the publishers of this task," he says. "You will be surprised at the number of authors who would like to see a 'publish and forget' system in operation. A good set of information needs to be managed, even if only at a low level. Unchanged information will quickly date and become worse than useless, it can become dangerous.

"Our philosophy is that we would rather have 80 per cent good material and 20 per cent 'not so good', but publish 100 per cent of what we feel needs to be published. If you manage the publishing 'gateway' too tightly, you will end up with only 20 per cent of the information that should be published."Anyone can publish as long as they have the approval of the owner of the higher level in the structure. Lynch says that while this approach has limitations (because a lot of information could logically belong in a number of areas) attorney-general's librarians, its professional information classifiers, have been charged with helping with the classification task. Lynch concedes there have been some problems with automatic conversion of documents to HTML, and says he's looking for better document conversion tools from the market in future. He also warns about potential problems with default conversion of large documents.

"On the Internet documents over 20KB are not user-friendly. On an intranet you can go larger but still need to be aware that your users may be less tolerant and that WAN and dial-in connected users will always get lower response times," says Lynch. Another difficulty is with the rapid rate of change with intranet technology where an Internet year is considered to be the equivalent of seven normal IT years. Lynch says attempting to keep a system operational, develop new features and keep up with the seemingly daily advances in the technology could be very time-consuming -- and very wearing.

Whenever possible attorney-general's provides both HTML and native application versions of the documents. And staff can both search for documents or find them by browsing. "The intention is to provide multiple paths to any document to better meet staff needs in retrieving required documents," Lynch says.

Attorney-General's business case suggested a return on investment within 18 months. Lynch says the department has yet to perform a post-implementation review, but believes its success can be measured in the continuing rapid growth of documents published, the growing number of new uses staff are finding, and the ever wider scope of applications that are using intranet technology as a base.

"For example, one of our manuals, used by all legal staff, is around 700 pages," says Lynch. "To print and distribute revised versions of this manual costs around $4000, with a further $1000 for loose-leaf updates in those years in which a new version is not distributed. The cost of purchasing specialised Web editor software, training staff and providing support for an electronic version of this document was recovered within the first year," he says.

Lynch concedes software development is not always easy. He says client/server applications in a Web environment can be complex and the development environment is still immature. "Be prepared to either train your staff or pay a premium for developers with the range of skills needed. At the same time make sure your developers have the basic skills needed by any applications programmer in a large environment. It is easy to get people with skills developed on PCs that do not translate to an environment with hundreds, let alone thousands, of users," he says.

But despite all the difficulties, Lynch is confident attorney-general's intranet is an excellent knowledge management tool. Not only is the number of publishers continuing to increase and the number of documents growing, but management is also beginning to find it a useful tool for the dissemination of information -- the best endorsement possible of its effectiveness.

"The intranet is becoming accepted as the standard way of providing services to staff. For new and redeveloped applications, the question most likely to be asked is: 'Can we do this using a Web interface?' Our users are beginning to show an increasing desire to use more sophisticated publishing techniques. HTML pages generated by our publishers are becoming more common, images are starting to appear, as is Javascript and requests, so far not satisfied, to use video and sound."Indeed the experience proves that one only needs to give staff and managers a taste of a well-managed intranet as a knowledge management environment, and they will definitely be back for more. And that is the best kind of endorsement those staff and managers could possibly offer.

From Know to Go

There are real and immediate benefits to developing knowledge management strategies, activities and related systems in your organisation. But they can be hard to achieve if you don't follow a few steps.

1. Don't develop knowledge management systems for the sake of collecting great information.

2. Put knowledge to work daily to benefit people, boost performance and improve value.

3. When you begin your first knowledge management project, aim to produce a quick business benefit that others can appreciate.

4. Focus on acquiring and organising the most relevant information assets out of all the sources available.

5. Take the time to develop software and create methodologies for accessing and analysing knowledge.

6. Remember that you need to understand how people think, not just what they know.

Knowledge management applications for IT tend to fall within four categories:- Sharing best practices and access to knowledge bases that cover "standard" IT support functions such as installing hardware and software.

- Supporting telephone-based help-desk support of end users.

- Bringing together geographically dispersed employees to collaborate on team projects.

- Learning from and reusing knowledge accumulated during past IT efforts.

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