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Knowledge Management

It's funny what can happen over a turkey sandwich. Witness what has come out of the kitchen at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Those familiar with PARC know it for its sharp minds and creative inventions. But locally it's known for something else: a cafeteria that boasts good, cheap food and a breathtaking view of the valleys surrounding San Francisco. Because these treasures are open to anyone with a Xerox badge, the technicians who service Xerox equipment in the area often stop by PARC for lunch. So it was here that they-the people who spend their working hours digging deep into the guts of complex machinery-met some of the top research minds who spend their days wrapping their brains around concepts that hover between the brilliant and the preposterous. As a result of those meetings, researchers and Xerox technicians came together to develop a system for managing knowledge that flourished as a grassroots effort in a company that's not known for paying attention to the grass.

Now Xerox technicians are using knowledge management to share how they fix machines better and more naturally than most companies dream about. Call it an accident - a collision of the real world and the cerebral world that resulted in something thousands of Xerox employees use every day. Xerox calls it financial good fortune - the system that eventually came out of those PARC lunches has saved the company millions. It also carried a critical lesson for anyone trying to make sense of the bewildering world of knowledge management: True knowledge sharing has to start and end with the people who have the knowledge. This, then, is the story of how KM visited Xerox and left it a better place.

Tucked away behind one of Silicon Valley's main thoroughfares, PARC is funded mostly by Xerox and partly by the government. From behind its walls emerged such inventions as the first commercial mouse, laser printing and flat panel displays, while hundreds of other projects remain sequestered.

Our story begins with researchers working on artificial intelligence who wanted to see if they could replace the paper documentation that Xerox technicians used on the road with an electronic form. Some thought their lunchtime contact with technicians might help them test their theories of artificial intelligence (AI). They thought, "What if we built an expert system - a system that can "think" the way a person does-that would do the job of the documentation, suggesting fixes based on symptoms?"

The team - led by researcher Danny Bobrow and including software engineer Bob Cheslow and researchers Mark Shirley and David Bell - found that it was indeed possible to build software that could do just that. But when they showed their first efforts to technicians, the response was underwhelming.

What kept technicians from finding fixes was not that the documentation was paper-based but that it didn't address all the potential problems. And not all problems were predictable. Machines in certain regions could react to extreme temperatures in different ways. A can of Mountain Dew overturned in one part of a machine could wreak havoc in another seemingly unconnected part. Technicians could handle these mishaps quickly only if they had seen them before or if another technician had run into a similar problem and shared the results.

Once the conversations with technicians revealed this gap in information sharing, the researchers realized that AI was the wrong approach. What Xerox needed instead was knowledge management. "It wasn't a smart computer program that was going to fix these things," says Cheslow. "It was sharing the best ways to make these repairs."

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