I3 UPDATE / Entovation International News

a free monthly briefing on the knowledge agenda

No. 49 March 2001





David J. Skyrme


David Skyrme Associates


Contents - Main Feature - Knowledge Digest


Humanising the Internet

Power to the People

David J. Skyrme

Last month, I highlighted the shortfalls of many corporate websites and indicated how knowledge management could help the development of knowledge networks. The focus of these networks is people and how they transfer knowledge. But, too often technical developments (including intranets, Internet sites and document management systems), sadly neglect the human dimension. It is people that populate websites, write emails and contribute to online discussion forums. How many, though, are trained to use the software tools effectively? How many are closely involved with the design of new systems, rather than just being 'trained' after the event? How many tools are really tailored to the way that people really work.

Is Your Internet Person-Friendly?

Let me give you a couple illustrations from my recent experience of where I feel that a little extra thought could make the Internet more person-friendly:

  • The Email subject header that says Re: XYZ, when the subject matter of the dialogue has moved on. I missed an important client instruction recently because the relevant email header referred to earlier work, and I was concentrating on all the emails relevant to an impending deadline and the task in hand. Making headers relevant is one way to connect to the reader - if necessary use several shorter emails with different headers if several subjects are covered. At a recent KM conference - one speaker told how the introduction of simple email guidelines significantly helped knowledge sharing and made people more productive.
  • Providing a relevant contact name and contact details. Too many sites do not identify owners for given pages or give email access to them. OK, there will be concerns about exposing individuals to spam and unnecessary interruptions, but this can easily be overcome by making sure that generic mailboxes (such feedback@company.com and info@companyxyz.com) automatically forward to the right person. One KM software provider's website last week gave no email contact and insisted I fill in a form with full address (I simply typed a single letter in each field just to get it accepted) to contact the company with a sales enquiry!!

Humanizing a website friendly does not mean stuffing your website with people's photographs or having your senior staff talk on video webcasts (though each of these has their place and can serve a useful purpose). It is also not just about personalizing pages for the user - although done effectively (such as at Amazon.com) it can enhance the user experience. Often though, it does not. One website that exploits personalization serves up different pages according to your route through the site. On this particular site I found that the Back button would not work effectively, and when I selected a page I wanted to look at again, it had changed. I had to hunt through the browser history to find the page I actually wanted to see. The technology was too clever for its own good.

No. What humanizing your Internet presence is about is giving power to people. Your staff, customers and suppliers and other stakeholders should all have the opportunity to contribute and enter a rich knowledge sharing dialogue.

Power to People

In the main editorial of this month's Internet Magazine (EMAP Publications - http://www.internet-magazine.com) editor Tracy Kreisky writes: "Among all the bluster about the Net and its money-making (or losing) abilities, people seem to have forgotten that the massive majority of content on the Net comes from individuals". She goes on to talk about individuals reclaiming the net from corporations (citing peer-to-peer sharing such as Napster being an example) as a "resurgence of the Net's early principles - people sharing files and ideas over a secure link, and building their own community in the process. Commercial sites spend thousands trying to create communities on their sites, but still can't do as good a job."

If you want some good examples of people power in action look at the consumer review sites like Deja (http://www.deja.com) and Ciao (http://www.ciao.com). The latter, started in Munich in August 1999, now boasts reviews of over 80,000 products (it even pays people to submit their product opinions!). Another good example is that of the Open Directory Project. Calling itself a 'self regulating republic' it aims to produce "the most comprehensive directory of the web by relying on a vast army of volunteer editors". (Read it's approach at http://dmoz.org/about.html. Its section on knowledge management (http://dmoz.org/Reference/Knowledge_Management/) - its better than that of any of the 'commercial' directories like Yahoo! Also, take a look at some of the vibrant communities on Geocities, or the professional communities using email discussion lists on Topica (http://www.topica.com). These are all examples of making the web more human and making people involved.

So how might organizations humanize their Internet presence? Here's a few ideas:

  • Put a direct email contact on every page. Where possible, identify the specific team or author with the content of a page.
  • Allow personal home pages and biographies on the more informal parts of your website - a good start is to allow these on the corporate intranet; it's a natural follow on of an internal skills or expertise database.
  • Create online communities or discussion lists in which employees, customers and others can freely exchange information in the full eye of your website visitors. What's more, make it a daily task of every senior manager to participate in one company run community and one third party community that are most direct relevance to their responsibilities.
  • Provide 'chat rooms', 'talk through' and two way videoconferencing as a prominent feature on your websites so that simultaneous dialogue with a real people can take place.

What's more, a good place to get into the humanizing mode of operation is to get rid of automated voice responses on your customer support telephone lines and make sure that a human answers the phone - that's what happens at one Scottish Bank. You could take it even further and set up a conversation centre (instead of the call centre), where your customer's can volunteer feedback by talking to to a product manager. And yes - it could be a premium rate line - but one where the customer gets paid for using the line and giving you market research. But perhaps that is taking people power too far?!

Of course, there are many managers will have many reasons why NOT to adopt these practices - "what - let headhunter's get at our best people?"; "what - show our dirty linen in public?"; "that'll give lawyers a field day"; "that's a time waster". But many of these same people had similar reasons to stop introducing the Internet into the workplace in the first place. Now it is accepted. So, in a few year's time, some of the above suggestions may be commonplace as email and the Internet is today.

I'm sure you have some better examples of good humanization practices. If so, why not share some practical examples with I3 UPDATE readers?

Email: David J. Skyrme

© Copyright, 2001. David Skyrme Associates Limited and Authors - All rights reserved.

I3 UPDATE / ENTOVATION International News is a joint publication of David Skyrme Associates Limited and ENTOVATION International Limited - providers of trends analysis, strategic advice and workshops on knowledge management and knowledge innovation®

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