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Saturday, January 1, 2011

Free Knowledge Management Tools

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Free Knowledge Management ToolsA little while ago, I had an idea.

The idea was that knowledge management (I realize not everyone is familiar with knowledge management, so a definition is always useful) is an extremely useful approach to getting things done within an organization.

However, knowledge management is often limited to large organizations with big budgets and dedicated staff who can set up complex tools and processes to make it work.

So I thought: why can't this approach work for small businesses, non-profits and other organizations with limited money and resources?

This article is designed to be a guide to using the many free tools on the web to set up your own personalized knowledge management initiative -- and best of all, how to do it at absolutely no cost to you (except your time of course).

While I could write a short tip once in a while about how to go about doing this, I thought I'd rather package all this information up into a longer article that you can read when you have time. If you don't have the time to read it now, print this article out or bookmark it for later.

Interested? Have time to start reading now? Great. Let's get started.

My reasons for wanting to help you.

So first you ask, why am I doing this? Well, I wanted to take some of the cool knowledge management stuff I do every day and explain to you how to do it for free. Why? There are so many organizations that can benefit from this type of approach. Whether you're running a small business or are part of a non-profit organization (like a school or library) you can put some of these principles into practice and save time and money.

Time to get started: Google Desktop Search.

You'll notice that I am suggesting a great deal of Google tools in this article. Not only are Google tools almost always free, they are also of high quality and available online (which makes you wonder about Google's aspirations for providing online collaborative software).

OK, enough speculating. Now we're going to get into how to actually go about setting this stuff up.

First, you will need a Google account. So if you don't have one already, go create one. Just lick "Create an account now" in the bottom right-hand corner.

After you've done that, you'll want to install Google Desktop Search.

Before we can get our strategy going, we first need access to all of the information and knowledge stored within our own files, emails and drives. This follows from the fact that good knowledge management must build on solid information retrieval tactics. This step provides the foundation for the knowledge edifice we are going to erect on top of it.

Before you go ahead and install it however, you should know that you have two options with Google Desktop search: the regular edition and the enterprise edition.

The regular edition of Google Desktop Search will allow you to search your network drive, your emails, your web history, and any other difficult-to-find stuff that you have on your computer.

The enterprise edition of Google Desktop Search allows a central administrator to control how desktop search is set up on each person's computer, and to centrally administer policies.

For most purposes, regular Google Desktop Search will be fine. Click on "Agree and Download" and then install the application.

Rather than going through all of the features of Google Desktop Search here, you can view Google's guide to the features of Google Desktop Search.

Got Google Desktop Search installed? Good. Let's move on.

Google Personalized: get the feeds you need.

Now you're able to find the information you need on your own PC, we need to move to the next step of our personalized our strategy: personalized news and information feeds that reflect what you're interested in and what you need.

While there are many desktop search tools to choose from, no other search engine really offers the personalized search option that Google does (which certainly could change in the near future, especially if we consider whether it's possible for Google to grow their current search market).

First of all, you'll need to go to the Google Personalized page. Use the Google Account you created right before step 1 to log into your account. Here is a sample Google Personalized page I've set up (click on it for a bigger view, if the bigger view still looks messy, click once to zoom in on it).

You will see from my example above an "Add a tab" link in the top and middle of the page, right under the Google search bar. This will add more tabs to your page, which you can then use to organize your content.

Most importantly however, you will want to use the "Add stuff" link to the right of that. This will provide you with categorized lists of content that you can use to populate your page with useful news and information.

I would also suggest creating a 'Tools' tab, where you can store any useful reference information you use at work on a regular basis. This could include Wikipedia, driving directions, or an online dictionary. This will save you a great deal of time, since you'll now be able to access all your resources from one page. See below for an example of what I mean.
A sample of Google Personalized Tools.

If you want to get a little more fancy with adding feeds, go to any web page that has RSS support and you can add the link directly into the "Add stuff" part of Google Personalized. If you're not familiar with RSS feeds, check out Wikipedia's page on RSS.

Now that we've got personalized information feeds, let's take a look at a collaborative knowledge-sharing tool you can use with your colleagues.

Don't just personalize your page, personalize search itself.

Do you ever wish Google search could prioritize particular sites in their ranking related to what you're interested in? Or that you and your colleagues or friends could work together on maintaining a listing of the sites you want searched and the priority you want to assign to those sites?

So how do we go about doing this? First of all, check out the search engine I've set up. Or try a search in the box on the right-hand side of this page. Conduct a few searches to get an idea how the personalized search engine works (for more information on Google personalized search, check out this post on Rocky's reDesign blog).

Now that you've done that, visit the Google Coop page to get you started. Click on the image to the right of "Create your own search engine". You will need to sign in with your Google Account to create your search engine.

Basically, you'll give your search engine a name and assign the sites that you want it to search. Because this is done through Google Coop, you can enlist 'volunteers' to help you with your search engine. Get your colleagues to sign up for it (they will need Google Accounts), and they can suggest sites to add to the search engine.

For some interesting uses of the Google Coop service, check out this post on librarian.net.

Isn't that fun? Let's move on to the next step.

Install Firefox.

As an astute reader, you may be asking yourself why I'm asking you to install Firefox. It's not a Google product, right? Right. However, it still has many features we can use to our advantage, with the added bonus of also being free.So first, go install the latest version of Firefox.

Now that you've done that, I'm going to tell you that installing Firefox itself will help you use some great features, but there's nothing you really won't get with Internet Explorer 7 (which you should also install, by the way, if you haven't already).

However, there's one area where Firefox beats Internet Explorer hands down, and that's in its use of extensions.Extensions basically 'extend' the functionality of your browser in ways not possible through a standard install. It's how we use these extensions that will form the basis of our customized and personalized strategy.Google has some great extensions for Firefox available for download.

And one final suggestion: OpenOffice.

Finally, I'll suggest one other software suite you should try. While it's not going to necessarily provide you with a new knowledge tool, it can certainly save you some money. Go try out OpenOffice. You will get all of the functionality that would be provided with Microsoft Office, but it's free. Sound too good to be true? You be the judge -- since it's free, what do you have to lose by trying it?

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