I3 UPDATE / Entovation International News

a free monthly briefing on the knowledge agenda

No. 47 February 2001





David J. Skyrme


David Skyrme Associates


Contents - Next Feature - Knowledge Digest


Knowledge-Centric Websites

David J. Skyrme

It's when you need some information in a hurry that you realize the abysmal nature of many corporate websites. I'm not talking here about knowledge whose location you are unsure of - and therefore need to go to search engines, but of knowledge that you feel sure ought to be on a particular website, and easily accessible and usable. Just take five examples from my activities last week:

1. Finding the specification of a mobile phone made by a well-known manufacturer - after waiting for images of appliances to be loaded, I could finally view the mobile phone section. The specifications for the phone scrolled up in a neat little window, but were unreadable when printed out (it was 4 cm wide and overprinted with images). Fortunately the company responded quickly to my email request and emailed me well formatted and easy-to-read file - so why could not this file have been put on the website in the first place?

2. Finding the right contact person at an organization to answer a simple copyright request - the Contact Us button gave a form but no email address. After my submitted form had been unanswered after a week, I sought out email addresses elsewhere on the site. Again - no response. Eventually I resorted to 20 minutes of transatlantic phone calls which involved a lot of department hopping, listening to Vivaldi and two lost connections before I found the right person. Even the 'front desk' people were not certain to whom I should talk for this basic query.

3. Booking an evening out at a local cinema - here the web server was unavailable over a long period. Their phone service led to wading through a tortuous voice response system, where the film I wanted was number 9 in the list. After a few more minutes of listening to irrelevant choices, it turned out that there was no early evening performance anyway. Over to a rival's website. Fine to start with, but bookings could not be made online, only over the phone - with a similar exposure to verbal torture.

4. Viewing a recent report that was publicized in the press - I thought this would be quick since it was featured on the home page among the 'latest news'. However, the report - which was quite long - was segmented into seven separate PDF sections which meant waiting to do seven downloads to get it into my portable for reading on my next train journey.

5. Finding directions to a city centre hotel (to which I had made a booking) - the hotel website said a lot about facilities and that it was 5 minutes from the rail station, only it did not give a map or show which direction. Sure enough, when I arrived I set off in the wrong direction.

In all of these examples, there is no complex knowledge interaction - just a simple need for relevant information quickly. And all of these organizations are large ones with large promotion and IT budgets, yet they all fall down in my eyes on being customer centric and e-ready.

Be Customer-Centric

The starting point of being customer centric is to have a website that actually works:

  • The website server must have a high up-time and be reasonably responsive
  • Any special features e.g. use of databases and Javascript must work (there are still too many sites that list Javascript errors)
  • Images should be used appropriately - where they add interest and impact: I do not want to wait to view a parade of washing machine images when all I want is the bit on mobile phones.

Then there is the whole question of the user experience:

  • How easy is it for the casual visitor to find specific information that they need, directly from the home page? Is there simple navigation tree? Is there a context sensitive search engine?
  • Are there multiple ways of contacting the organization - phone, email, web form etc. Is it clear which gets the most direct response?
  • How responsive is the organization to visitor queries - behind the visitor's AOL or hotmail address could be the senior director of your major customers who just happens to be contacting you from their home computer.
  • How many mouse clicks does it take before visitors are reading what they seek in the format they prefer? Are there small sections for HTML browsing, PDF versions of longer documents and a printer-friendly version?

Looking at many corporate websites, I often wonder how many have actually been exposed to the same kinds of focus groups and user testing that the company's products are. Simply asking 'give us feedback' for a site that makes the visitor want to move on quickly is a recipe for disaster.

It might help improve matters if all senior managers of companies that have website were made to get the public information about their own company and products only from their public website rather than internal sources. (Some managers I know do this, since the company's product brochure on the website is more up to date than the glossy one on their shelf).

Some of these customer-centric essentials are covered in more depth in my article 'Are you E-ready' which gives a summary of the 10Ps of Internet marketing, first covered in these Updates (from No 31 onwards).

But beyond these basics of taking a customer-centric perspective, the one thing that distinguishes an also ran website from a truly excellent one is the underlying information and knowledge architecture. A knowledge-centric perspective can make an important a contribution to website effectiveness, yet is too frequently marginalized in website development projects.

The KM Contribution

Before embarking on any KM solution a worthwhile starting point is to ask: "knowledge for what?". By thinking in terms of the knowledge context for users' actions and decisions, their needs can be expressed in ways that deliver the right knowledge at the appropriate stage in a knowledge-intensive task or process. For example, making an investment decision might need access to the results of similar decisions made in the past. Tackling a new problem may invoke the need for knowledge of others who have solved the problem or whether there are examples of best practice. For these reasons the techniques found in many KM programmes of conducting an information or knowledge audit, provide some clarity of which knowledge people need and where the best sources are. Yet often the user requirements of an IT (or web) project are not mapped in the systematic manner of an information audit.

The second area where KM has an important role is that of information classification and taxonomy. While search engine and mapping technology (such as solutions from Verity or Semio) has a growing role to play, the skills of an information scientist or librarian can provide an important discipline in the way that information is categorized and presented. The skills of doing an abstract and keywords for a long report (such as the PDF report I mentioned earlier) all contribute to making the visitor experience a more worthwhile one - closer matching of search results and an ability to sense quickly whether reading the full document would be worthwhile. Add in (user-centric) knowledge trees for specific purposes, and the website can start to come alive. The growing use of content management and personalization solutions, such as Vignette and Broadvision, demands that content classification is done well and calls for these kinds of skills.

Knowledge Webs

But these points are really to do with good information management. The true contribution of knowledge management comes through helping the development of knowledge networks and knowledge webs. Here several increasingly popular practices can help boost the effectiveness of a website:

  • Online communities - orchestrating a community of Interest or Community of Practice; encouraging debate and dialogue; why not let customers shares their thoughts with each other and with product developers? (Interesting the computer software suppliers to be well ahead of the filed in this practice).

  • More specific collaborative workspaces - this might be a project virtual team room on an extranet, where a company and its suppliers or business partners are co-developing new services or business methods.

  • Answernets - routing email enquiries to the appropriate experts, and making sure there is a rota of experts on call to give visitors a timely response.

  • Use of rich media - interactive multimedia to allow the visitor to explore the various aspects of knowledge behind the basic website presentation. (Unfortunately, most of the multimedia on websites is simply video replays of what the producer wants to show you. In contrast some websites are experimenting with 3D virtualization e.g. for viewing a house or a product from different angles under user control)

  • Alternative online channels - e.g. via videoconferencing, chat and 'talk through' (using Voice over Internet) to communicate in real-time with another human being - not the impersonal voice response system. (Lands' End offer a good example of this).

In most of these, it is the knowledge in people - rather than explicit knowledge in documents, databases or web pages - that add extra richness to online knowledge. Looking further ahead, the originator of the Web, Tim Berners-Lee, envisages the Web as becoming much richer in such knowledge exchange. It will become more interactive and collaborative. Dynamic interaction between virtual workers around shared objects (diagrams, images, documents etc) will create a truly web-centric knowledge. At the same time, other people are working on The Semantic Web, where interaction takes place between machines (via intelligent agents).

We live in a web-centric world, but one which will not reach its full potential until those who are building websites more fully embrace customer-centric and knowledge-centric perspectives.

Email: david@skyrme.com

© 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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