Microsoft last week described plans for technologies that will help businesses accumulate, integrate, share, and access data across their organizations. Combined with the company's existing database, applications, and middleware, the forthcoming products are intended to provide an infrastructure for managing not just data, but knowledge. But does Microsoft have the know-how to do it?
Knowledge management is a lofty concept-debated by academics and even doubted by some analysts-and one that few businesses have mastered. Microsoft's evolution as a knowledge-management vendor has been slow, but company officials say the products laid out at last week's TechEd developers conference in Dallas represent a significant advance.
"Microsoft is providing a set of services that bring together information-capture, search, and deliver [it]-collaborative services, content-management services, tracking, and workflow, as well as business intelligence," says Bob Muglia, senior VP of Microsoft's business productivity group. "All of those are part of an overall knowledge-management solution."
Businesses are clearly interested. In an InformationWeek Research survey earlier this year, Microsoft outranked Lotus Development Corp.-its chief competitor in the field- when IT managers were asked to name which vendors were strategic to their knowledge-management plans (see chart, p. 19), even though Microsoft's knowledge-management framework is a work in progress.
Microsoft previewed middleware, which will enter testing later this year, for integrating Windows applications with apps on mainframes, minicomputers, and other platforms, including Unix. The software, code-named Babylon, is based on technology in the company's host connectivity product, SNA Server, and will help eliminate communications problems that result when applications use different messaging and protocol formats. "It will be able to translate any protocol into any [other] protocol," says Paul Maritz, group VP of Microsoft's developer group.
This idea of a "universal translator" appeals to Andrew Drooker, VP of network systems architecture and research and development at Turner Broadcasting Systems Inc., which uses Microsoft's Windows NT, Windows Terminal Server, and BackOffice servers. "Babylon is awesome," Drooker says. "It's bridging the gap between host systems and downsized systems, and that has business value."
Microsoft also demonstrated Platinum, the next version of its NT-based E-mail engine, which will let users address messages, files, and documents using URLs. That's accomplished with new technology, dubbed Web Store, that advances Microsoft's goal of making it possible to locate both structured data (such as database files) and unstructured data (such as E-mail and slide presentations) in a single search. Users will be able to view search results from a variety of desktop tools, including the Outlook mail client, Windows Explorer browser, and third-party products.
Platinum entered beta testing this month and is due next year. "It's a vast improvement over what they have now," Drooker says.
A Web-indexing tool called Tahoe is in the works, though Microsoft isn't saying when it will ship. Tahoe and Web Store dovetail with Microsoft's plan, also discussed last week, to make the Web's Extensible Markup Language a native file format for all of its products. XML, Microsoft says, will facilitate information sharing across systems and applications.
Workflow is also key to knowledge management. Microsoft demonstrated a workflow design tool, Grizzly, which will ship in the second half of the year as an update to the developer edition of its Office 2000 applications suite. Office 2000, available since April, comes with new workgroup features, including the ability to set up team collaborations in a shared folder on a Web server. "We are focusing on ways people can function more effectively as teams," Muglia says.
Portal Power For viewing data, Microsoft showed off a prototype portal called Digital Dashboard, an interface aimed at knowledge workers. A cross between Microsoft's Active Desktop, an executive information system, E-mail client, and browser, the portal concentrates commonly used applications-for example, a stock ticker, spreadsheet, E-mail, and calendar-on a single screen.
Microsoft also plans to create a standard interface, OLE DB for Data Mining, for data mining tools. The company will hold a design review in June with software vendors and plans to have a final specification by year's end.
Microsoft's knowledge-management effort, which it discusses in the context of its Distributed interNetworking Applications architecture, gets mixed reviews. Ajit Kapoor, director of worldwide network standards and architecture at General Motors Corp., calls the plan "a very good strategy." Kapoor says Web Store, for example, should make data more accessible to employees. But he's skeptical that Microsoft will be able to deliver all that's promised in the universal translator in its new middleware. Says Kapoor, "That's a little hard for me to believe because it's the Holy Grail of computing."
Turner Broadcasting's Drooker wonders where Digital Dashboard fits into Microsoft's overall user-interface strategy. "It's doing a lot of what Outlook does, so what's the business value of deploying something like that?" he says.
Scient Corp., a consulting firm, is building an intranet knowledge-management system using Microsoft products, so employees can share best practices and cooperate on projects. DougKalish, Scient's chief knowledge officer, says Microsoft is "giving us the tools to integrate knowledge across the enterprise."
Still, Kalish says Microsoft has much to do. "The development environment for apps is still not as robust as Lotus Notes, and Notes has better local indexing and search to support the disconnected user," Kalish says. "I think we've been promised that but haven't seen it yet."
As part of the project, Scient spent about six months developing its own workflow approval process. Kalish describes Microsoft's workflow capabilities as "adequate," but says they aren't "robust."
IBM's Lotus subsidiary has been aggressively pushing its Notes/Domino groupware as a knowledge-management environment, and some observers give Lotus a lead over Microsoft.
"While there isn't one overall platform to tackle knowledge management, Lotus does have many of the piece-parts you might desire, and Microsoft doesn't," says David Yockelson, an analyst with the Meta Group. "Microsoft has things on an agenda, which is to come up with those piece-parts and also be a platform provider to third parties who will come up with piece-parts."
IBM executives say Microsoft's knowledge-management push, with its emphasis on IT architecture, addresses only half the problem. "Our objective is to focus on the business issues first and then worry about the technology components," says Dan Graham, solutions and strategy executive for business intelligence with IBM's Global Business Intelligence Solutions Unit.
But KPMG says Microsoft's products can indeed provide the foundation for a knowledge-management environment. In a few weeks, the firm will activate a knowledge-management system it has been assembling for a year. Components include Windows NT Server, SQL Server, Exchange, Site Server, Outlook, Office, and Internet Explorer, according to Michael Turillo, KPMG's international chief knowledge officer.
KPMG is using third-party products to complete the $100 million system. They include collaboration software from Silknet Software Inc., portal software from Sageware Inc., and software and services from Razorfish Inc. "One way I look at that is, 'Gee, how come it's so expensive?'" says Meta's Yockelson. "One could argue that having to put the pieces together isn't the best thing."
Microsoft admits that its strategy calls for a heavy dose of third-party products. Says GM's Kapoor: "I don't think any company can do it all by themselves.
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