Magazine Article | June 22, 2006

Knowledge Management: Shelter From The Storm

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

Web portal and content management tools helped NASA employees communicate, collaborate, and remain productive during the 2005 hurricane season.

Integrated Solutions, July 2006

Few will forget the haunting images of people stranded, families torn apart, and entire communities lost in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. However, many fail to realize the damaging effects disasters like these have on the business community. Insurance companies estimate several billion dollars in revenue was lost by businesses during Hurricane Katrina alone. A large portion of these losses can likely be attributed to vital data being destroyed and, for employees forced to evacuate their corporate offices, an inability to collaborate with coworkers and partners in order to perform their jobs effectively.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has predicted that there is an 80% chance for above-normal hurricane activity during the 2006 season, which began June 1. The imminent threat of hurricanes and other natural disasters reinforces the importance of having a sound ECM (enterprise content management), disaster recovery, and business continuity plan in place. With the right technology solution, you can provide your organization with the tools it needs to not only survive a natural disaster, but remain productive in the face of one.

Digitizing business-critical documents like business contracts, insurance policies, patient records, mortgages, and deeds is the first step to preparing your business for a potential disaster. Converting paper to electronic images puts content in a format that can be cost-effectively backed up on disk, tape, and/or optical storage devices, and geographically dispersed for disaster recovery purposes. This preventive measure can drastically reduce the amount of content lost or damaged by forces of nature. Indexing these document images, as well as computer-generated documents, and placing them in a document management system repository will allow this information to be quickly and simultaneously accessed by employees throughout your organization.

However, basic document and content management procedures may not be enough to ensure your vital business operations are steadfast when disaster strikes. Today, an increasing number of organizations are implementing knowledge management (KM) solutions to provide added support in times of crisis. A KM solution is not a single-purpose program, but a suite of complementary software applications that facilitates the sharing of content throughout an enterprise. A KM solution typically consists of an enterprise search tool that finds and categorizes information stored in structured databases and in unstructured data sources such as Web pages and text files. The data sources are usually referenced by a central, searchable repository that is part of a content or records management system. Collaboration software is also a common component of a KM solution, and a Web portal typically provides access to all of these tools.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) incorporated many KM technologies into its intranet site, in April 2005. Its solution consists of an eTouch enterprise content and digital asset management system, Autonomy and Google search tools, and a Vignette internal Web portal. The solution was originally implemented to enhance day-to-day communication among employees and improve access to and collaboration on NASA’s engineering content. However, with nearly half of NASA’s 12 office locations located directly in the paths of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the agency quickly realized what an indispensable resource its KM system could be in times of disaster.

“When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit, several of our locations, such as the Johnson Space Flight Center in Texas and the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, needed to be shut down and evacuated,” says Jeanne Holm, chief knowledge architect at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We realized that there was an opportunity for us to use the KM tools on our intranet site to meet agency needs during these disasters. Since local servers were at risk, we rehosted these individual center home pages within our insideNASA portal, providing continuity of operations by ensuring their content was protected and still available to employees.” The data centers that host NASA’s KM systems are not co-located with any NASA center, but reside in two independent and geographically separate locations — one is in Texas and the other in Colorado. It is unlikely that both of these locations would be affected by the same disaster, and if one of these data centers is at risk, a hot failover triggers the other data center to assume full hosting responsibilities, providing complete system redundancy.

In addition to providing business continuity for individual space centers, NASA also used its KM tools to provide employees with up-to-the-minute information about each of the hurricanes it was affected by, as well as the emergency procedures deployed as a result. “Our portal technology allows us to preload portlets into our system, allowing us to update our intranet site quickly,” says Holm. “As a result, we can easily create dynamic new Web pages that provide disaster-specific information whenever a new emergency arises. These Web pages allow us to provide employees with the information they need to make better decisions when in the midst of a crisis.”

NASA’s disaster management Web pages contain a lot of textual information, such as instructions on where an evacuee should call to check in once they’ve reached an arrival destination safely and information about when employees can return to work. NASA’s Web portal technology also provides Web connectors that allow the agency to provide information from outside sites on its intranet. For example, connections to government meteorological services provide real-time weather tracking on NASA’s internal portal. Furthermore, connections to local radio station sites provided employees with the latest road closures and evacuation routes via insideNASA during the 2005 hurricanes.

Perhaps the best illustration of how NASA’s KM system helped employees get out of harm’s way occurred during Hurricane Rita when several NASA employees evacuating from Houston called the Jet Propulsion Lab to say they were stuck in traffic and running out of gas. If you recall, the traffic jams stretched for miles and many local gas stations were either shut down or sold out of fuel. NASA quickly used its KM tools to access distribution information posted by several oil companies that indicated the latest fuel deliveries made in the Houston area. NASA then coordinated this information with Google Maps to provide evacuating employees with a detailed schematic on insideNASA that pinpointed the closest operating gas stations to their current locations.

So how does an employee in flight from a natural disaster gain access to NASA’s intranet site? Well, once an employee is disconnected from NASA’s physical network, they can access specific disaster management pages and other insideNASA services virtually via a VPN (virtual private network) or browser-routed remote access server. This allows NASA employees to access its KM system from any cyber café or Internet-enabled BlackBerry or Treo.

Publishing new content to the site can also be accomplished via these virtual links. NASA designates select emergency operations employees in each of its individual centers to serve as what it calls first responders. When disaster strikes, first responders are responsible for publishing any content to insideNASA that can help other employees through the crisis. Often these first responders are in the middle of the crisis themselves, but they always have support from first responders at other NASA sites. Besides the textual information mentioned earlier, first responders may upload images to the intranet so employees can see if their facility has been damaged or if a local roadway has been washed out. First responders may also upload video files to instruct employees on procedures for removing types of debris they may encounter.

While the duties of first responders are essential, emergency operations personnel are not the only ones who may need to post content to the intranet during a disaster. In times of crisis, many different departments may have a role in communicating to key constituents. “Once the imminent threat of a disaster has passed, there are still logistical issues of employment that need to be considered,” says Holm. “For example, once employees are evacuated, they are going to have questions regarding how to charge their time and how and if they will be paid while they are displaced. For this reason, human resources employees are an example of a non-technical group that will need to publish information to the intranet during a disaster. These individuals won’t know how to code HTML, so your technology solution should make the publishing process as simple as possible. For NASA, authorized non-technical employees just need to fill out the empty sections of a Web form inside the NASA portal and press a publish button to post new content to the site.”

In addition to providing employees with the latest disaster-related information, NASA’s KM tools also provide displaced employees with access to e-mail, NASA’s content management repository, and other systems and services. NASA employees also have the ability to collaborate on projects virtually, instant message employees and partners, and conduct WebX meetings using their KM system. These capabilities ensured that all the agency’s mission-critical operations remained on schedule. Other organizations can use technologies like these to ensure urgent business opportunities aren’t missed due to poor communication following a crisis.

NASA’s KM system played such a big role in helping the agency successfully navigate the 2005 hurricane season that NASA recently upgraded the system with capabilities to help it deal with a variety of other natural disasters. “Hurricanes are the most common disasters we face, and we’re well prepared for them,” says Holm. “However, with centers in California, we’re also subject to earthquakes and wildfires. There’s also an outside chance that some of our other centers could be affected by tornados, flash floods, or tsunamis. New features, such as enhanced weather analysis tools, will enhance our ability to react to these disasters, protect our employees, and ensure business continuity.”