Providing external access is often overlooked as a knowledge sharing enabler. Connecting users outside an organization’s firewall to selected websites, team spaces, and systems enables collaboration with retirees, vendors, and external users who would otherwise be blocked from the internal network. Doing so requires technical, security, and legal elements to be put in place, but can be very beneficial.
Extranets are intranets that can be partially accessed by authorized outside users, enabling businesses to exchange information over the Internet securely. Extranets are controlled private networks that allow partners, vendors, suppliers, and an authorized set of customers to access a subset of the information accessible from an organization’s intranet.
In The Wealth of Knowledge: Intellectual Capital and the Twenty-first Century Organization by Thomas Stewart, in chapter 5, pages 85–87, the following key elements of a KM program are defined based on the experience of Steve Denning at the World Bank:
- communities of practice
- place (online presence for the communities)
- help desk
- Yellow Pages (who-knows-what directory)
- primer (FAQ)
- knowledge artifacts (records of previous projects, emphasizing best practices and lessons learned)
- bulletin board
- doorway (a provision for outside access)
The final item, doorway, is often overlooked as an enabler for knowledge sharing to occur. Here are three examples of why external access can be valuable to an organization:
There is increasing concern about the loss of valuable knowledge as the workforce ages and Baby Boomers retire. Many of these retirees are willing to continue to share the knowledge they have gained over many years of experience. To do so, they need to be given access to community tools such as portals, team spaces, and threaded discussions. Providing this access poses minimal security risks and offers great benefits in ongoing contributions from the most experienced community members.
Vendors need access to effectively support their products and services inside the organization. Giving them access will greatly enhance the success of the vendor relationship. And vendors can contribute their knowledge about their products and services to communities within the organization if they are allowed to do so.
Other external users may also be able to share knowledge as extended community members. They can benefit from having access to problem resolution knowledge bases so they can solve their own problems, library assets so they can directly access what they need, and circulation systems so they can stay current on the status of requests without the need to contact a service desk.
Dealing with each of these opportunities in a way that maintains required levels of security, protects intellectual property, and enables the right level of access can be tricky. But it is worth creating the people, process, and technology mechanisms to make it work. The technology elements include providing gateways, secure servers, and identity management hardware and software.
Here are possible uses for providing external access to internal systems.
- Prospects: Interact with those who can help persuade them to become customers.
- Customers: Participate in their projects, monitor delivery of their purchases, get support from those best able to provide it, and support one another.
- Partners: Access information needed to support the partnership, collaborate with the right people, and directly use relevant business systems.
- Vendors, Suppliers, and Providers: Deliver support for products being used, see problems for themselves, and interact with one another.
- Analysts: Access appropriate information to help develop and update analyses of the company and its offerings.
- Contractors: Use time reporting, expense reporting, scheduling, project management, and team collaboration systems as if they were employees.
- Collaborators: Suggest improvements, collaborate on initiatives, and deliver innovations.
- Alumni and Retirees: Participate in communities, answer questions, and provide support.
- Candidates and Recruits: Interact with interviewers, hiring managers, and one another.
- Officials, Reviewers, and Auditors: Access relevant systems and databases, interact with appropriate contacts, and communicate progress and results.
When not to provide external access
External access to highly confidential collaboration and communication, internal-only projects, or internal Enterprise Social Networks (ESNs) should not be provided. This last one (ESNs) is controversial and caused an uproar when one ESN provider announced that external participation was being enabled for its product.
The problem with doing so is that an ESN is generally thought to be an internal-only network. The presence of external participants could be unnoticed by some members, leading to potentially damaging revelations of confidential information to non-employees. This should be avoided.
This concludes the third series on The Five Cs of KM. On the recording of my webinar on the third C: Connect, I present on the topics covered in this series. And in the next series of blog posts, I discuss the fourth C: Collaborate.