If your knowledge management system (KMS) consists simply of email and shared drives, you are missing the opportunity to build a KMS that engages your users and grows with your organization. You can build a robust and low-cost KMS using open source applications.

FCC Case Study

In 2001, many considered the Federal Communication Commission's website the best website in government. It was attractive, informative, and easy to navigate—the model of a good Web 1.0 site. Even so, what worked in 2001 doesn't work in the current Web 2.0 reality, in which users expected interactivity and the ability to customize their web experience. So, the FCC relaunched its site in 2011.

The new FCC site was built in nine months and for $1.4 million using open source technology such as Drupal (a content management system) and Apache Solr (an advanced search engine). A cornerstone of the new FCC site is a strong taxonomy system that links topics and data so that when a visitor is viewing a topic, related topics and resources are displayed on the same page.

Another feature of the new site is that all content is publishable as an API (application programming interface, how pieces of software communicate with each other). This means that pieces of the FCC site can be published on other websites. O'Reilly Radar calls the FCC reboot a model for other government websites.

Having built essentially an "FCCopedia," FCC then built My.FCC.Gov, which is composed of blocks that feature video, dynamic content, and other information that users can select and place on a personal start page. This was designed to meet the needs of the public, but many FCC employees also create My.FCC start pages for their own use.

The reboot of the FCC site and the creation of My.FCC led the way on how to build an engaging and extensible KMS for government using open source tools.

Using WordPress and Plug-ins

An online KMS should fulfill three major functions:

  1. provide a space for users to collaborate and share knowledge in both synchronous and asynchronous ways
  2. store knowledge artifacts such as documents, photos, mind maps, chat transcripts, and similar items
  3. enable the easy searching and indexing of the collaborations and knowledge artifacts.

You may want to add other features but I recommend that you start with just these three so that users can become familiar with the KMS. Having too many features at once can overwhelm users; you should only add features when a critical mass of users requests a particular new feature.

Starting with a simple system and then evolving it into a more complex system in response to user demands is a more successful strategy than starting with a complex system in which you try to anticipate user demands.

There are many open source tools that you can use to build a KMS. I have built a KMS using Drupal paired with Alfresco (document management system) and Apache Solr, which fulfilled the three major functions with only a few plug-ins (sometimes called "modules").

The advantage of using these open source tools is that much of the work of building a site is already done for you. That includes providing accounts, securing the site, and publishing of content.

If you do not have a feature either through the open source application or through a plug-in, you can build your own, like the FCC did. However, it is not necessary to do any programming to build a KMS.

For example, WordPress is probably the most used open source blogging platform today. It was first created in 2003 and has grown in popularity with its own large library of plug-ins. It is a robust application with an easy-to-use administrative interface and an automatic update service. I recommend this configuration for building your first online KMS.

Each of these plug-ins has its own sites that offer documentation and training.

  • WordPress 3.5.1 or later. Install this first. If you want to experiment with WordPress, I recommend using Bitnami.com's all-in-one installer.
  • BuddyPress 1.7.2. Install this plug-in first.
  • BadgeOS 1.0.3. This establishes gamification on your KMS.
  • WP Document Revisions 1.3.5. The document management plug-in.
  • WP Project Manager 0.4.3. For project management (optional).
  • Better WP Security 3.5.2. Many vital security features all in one plug-in. Highly recommended.
  • Jetpack by WordPress.com. This is an optional plug-in that requires an account on Wordpress.com. Enhances and adds features such as a better commenting system and a mobile theme for your WordPress site.

Encouraging Users to Collaborate on the WordPress KM System

So, once you have installed and set up the WordPress KMS, what do you do to start users collaborating and sharing knowledge? The two keys to success with a KMS are ease of use and timely feedback.

Ease of Use

In building the WordPress KMS, I wanted an interface that is intuitive or requires no more than 10 minutes of training to use a feature. Collaborating and sharing knowledge on this KMS is like composing and sending an email. Of course, the KMS administrator will need more training for the various plug-ins, but even that training will require only half a day of reading documentation and viewing videos. The KMS also is designed to be part of the employee's workflow, much like email and shared drives are currently a part of the knowledge worker's workflow.

Timely Feedback

The second key to success is timely feedback. This is accomplished through the gamification plug-in, BadgeOS. Gamifications' core principles are recognizing and rewarding people for their contributions and work. Through BadgeOS, employees can earn badges for contributing posts, commenting on posts, and completing other knowledge management tasks. Other employees can rate posts and comments, which also encourages collaboration and knowledge sharing. Gamification encourages employees to continue visiting the KMS as they track their progress and receive recognition for contributing.

Growing Your KMS

You can easily expand this simple KMS by adding more plug-ins and developing your own custom plug-ins. You also can pair the WordPress application with other open source applications such as Alfresco for document management or Pentaho for data reporting. Limit your first KMS to a small pilot group so that you can learn what works and what doesn't.

Once you are ready to roll out the KMS, you also will have a group of users who can train other users in using the new KMS. Again, it is best to add features slowly and in small batches so you do not overwhelm users.

Building a robust KMS doesn't require a great deal of money or time. With the right open source applications, you can have an engaging and effective way to manage knowledge in your organization that goes beyond just email and shared drives.