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Intranets: The New Knowledge Base

By Steve Telleen

A woman comes out of her office building after work on a dark winter evening. She sees one of her colleagues under a streetlight, searching for something. She asks if she can help. He explains that he has lost his car keys and would appreciate another set of eyes. 

After some time of searching, the woman tries another strategy. She asks where he last saw his keys, so they can trace the path back to that point. He replies, "Oh, I know where I lost them," and points to a dark spot across the parking lot under a tree. 

Flabbergasted, the woman asks, "If you lost the keys over there, why are you looking for them over here?" 

To which he replies, "Because the light's better here." 

As absurd as this old story sounds, this is the way we approach many of our decisions. When justifying intranets, we attempt to use ROI measures that are well known (under the streetlight), because the real value may not be conventional or easily measured. The same is true of how we pay for and reward individuals and companies for "new" value. 

With the advent of Internet technology, we are seeing cracks in our traditional value systems and what constitutes wealth. It is not information per se that is the newly valued commodity--it's vision and ideas. With the availability of cheap and plentiful information, the process of learning and synthesizing is replacing the process of manufacturing. 

How might our value systems change to reward the creation, distribution, and use of valuable ideas? What if ideas were paid for according to how widely they were used, rather than how narrowly they were monopolized? 

One can speculate on a value system that ascribes a base value to an idea, instantiated as a patentable process or product. But the "patent" holder would not have control over who could use the idea in product creation and manufacturing. The patent holder would be guaranteed the unit price for each unit produced, from everyone who used the idea. Thus, the way to greatest wealth would be to create ideas that are widely shared and used by many manufacturers, rather than monopolized by one. 

In an intranet environment, the same message holds true. How do we reward people for sharing knowledge and ideas? How do we reward them for learning? It is not only our management structures that have to change. Our value and reward structures also need to be examined. We must look for ways to reward people, both financially and in terms of influence, for creating and furthering general knowledge. Moving from means of production to means of knowing as a base value requires rewarding people for meaning, synthesis, and discovery along with their ability to continually restructure future possibilities.

What Does it Mean to People?

Today, many managers manage "the process." They set goals, devise a detailed plan of action, and then motivate and monitor their employees' actions according to the plan. At the dawn of the Information Age, some managers already are beginning to realize that successful management always has been accomplished by managing knowledge and facilitating the flow of information. As the trend continues, we can expect knowledge management to become the business of managers. 

Managers, in effect, are a kind of action agent. They take in sensory information and send out action-stimulating information. As managers discover the strong "sensory" power of intranets, they will encourage all work to be done there. 

The most-effective managers, and companies, will evolve patterns of work that embed the normal process of doing business into an intranet communication infrastructure. The traditional role of managers as sensory agents storing and forwarding information between upper management and workers will be subsumed by the intranet itself. The manager role will begin to focus more on the agent functions of analyst/critic and cross-pollinator.

As managers move out of the sensory-agent role, knowledge workers' roles will need to shift to handle the new opportunities and challenges of being wired directly into the knowledge base. Like managers, many knowledge workers will begin to view their role in terms of brokering knowledge rather than outputting content. Helping others find meaningful content for a specific problem will become more important than prepackaging the notebooks, manuals, and summaries common today. It is possible that this level, more than any other, will involve the interplay and integration of automated tools and human judgment. This also will create the biggest challenge for new organizations. 

The new knowledge workers need to be more proactive than reactive. They will need to customize more of their own information flow themselves. This means being able to determine what information they need; knowing how to find it; and knowing how to use personal agents to scan, screen, and track it.

Finally, we can expect organizations to struggle with how knowledge workers are evaluated and compensated for the value they add. Good ideas generally come from the interaction of multiple people, even when only one gets the credit. An intranet, with virtual communities and casual collaboration, will likely make evaluation and fair compensation for value-add even more nebulous.

Information Revolution

Intranets give us the power to manage in new ways. Taking advantage of the opportunities requires shifting our view from managing things to managing knowledge and information flow. This shift requires us to look at the entire organization, not just the information in applications and databases, as a knowledge base. 

The workplace will become complex sharing of sensory information and localized activities that change the knowledge base as they happen. The operational metaphor will shift from one of factory processes and parts to one of objects and agents, from machine to organism, and control will be viewed in terms of opposing tensions rather than engineered solutions. People will become the key element, not as versatile machines but as repositories of unique knowledge to be shared and blended. 

This leads us to perhaps the most exciting possibility: a shift in perspective from the Industrial Revolution as the golden age of individualism and exploitation of community labor to the Information Revolution as the golden age of community development and nurturing of individual knowledge.

Steve Telleen ( a director at Giga Information Group and the author often credited with coining the term intranet. You can read his book Internet Organization online at

Published in Oracle Magazine, Sept./Oct. 1998, p. 11-12
Adapted from Intranet Organization, by Steven L. Telleen. Copyright 1997, Steven L. Telleen, Ph.D.

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