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In the Briefing Room: Contextware

Thursday, August 27th, 2009 by Cody Burke

One of the missing pieces of a puzzle the knowledge worker faces in the course of performing knowledge work is context. Without context, the knowledge worker is looking at isolated bits of information that are, more often than not, of limited value. Most content doesn’t stand on its own; there is always important related and supporting information that completes the picture. Beyond a single document, what else should one read and whom else should one query? Knowing what to read next or which experts to contact completes the puzzle and increases the value of the content exponentially.

Indeed, capturing the expertise of subject matter experts and linking to documents and processes so that others may benefit from their knowledge is not only important as a way to add valuable context to information, but also as a means of preserving knowledge. This is particularly timely as an aging workforce means that large numbers of baby boomers will be leaving the workforce and be replaced by younger, less experienced workers. The massive quantities of information that knowledge workers must contend with on a daily basis is another compelling argument for adding context to content. Without it, searching for information is akin to searching for a needle in a haystack.

Contextware is a company that is addressing these pressing issues by providing tools that enable companies to capture the steps and information for a process and present knowledge workers with the relevant and related materials that they need to proceed. Simply put, the software adds context to support an activity. The Contextware system allows users to set up relationships between content, tools, and people that dictate steps that should be taken to complete the process; there are hard rules underlying the hidden processes, and soft rules that authors can easily set. The focus is on keeping things simple: if users add too many rules in the authoring environment, a prompt will alert them that they may have created an overly complex process. Or if a process is created with only one or two rules, the system may suggest that perhaps it does not need to be created.

In practice the knowledge worker logs in and receives permission-based access to processes. Drop down menus are used to select initial areas of interest, these are then drilled down into, with relevant content, tools, and people shown for each. For items shown, a number indicates how many assets (content, tools, or people) are available for that topic, and a link is provided. Metadata that determines what is presented to the user is stored on a database with a central taxonomy of topics, with rules determined by the hard and soft rules that were set up in the authoring environment.

The system captures not just the established relationship between content, such as the order in which a business process must be conducted, but also the unique knowledge of subject matter experts. Experts in a topic develop their own methods for completing tasks, often in ways that are not covered in the official rule book, and enabling access to this accumulated knowledge is invaluable. The context that is added to content through the use of what amounts to lightweight process management can effectively guide a knowledge worker through the haystack of information, and allow him to find the information needle he is looking for.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.