Ram Akella hates getting stuck in the maze of irrelevant
choices on a telephone help line. “It drives me crazy,” he says. But unlike most of us, Akella, Professor of
Information Systems and Technology Management (ISTM) at UC Santa Cruz, is doing
something about it. He is trying to help
businesses learn from their mistakes—like having a dead-end help line—as well
as their successes, and to then put that knowledge back into their business in
order to learn, improve, and grow. That action may require little more than a
good motto and customer-first attitude if the business is a mom-and-pop
operation. But when the company is a large enterprise, like a major airline or
a top healthcare provider, continued learning can be challenging indeed.
Challenging, but well worth the trouble, says Akella.
Transforming an information glut into an information goldmine is the aim of
knowledge science, and doing so in the burgeoning area of knowledge services is
the focus of a one-year-old program at UC Santa Cruz: Knowledge Services and
Enterprise Management (KSEM), a CITRIS-supported program at UCSC’s Silicon
Valley Center that is offered by the Baskin School of Engineering through UC
Santa Cruz Extension.
There was a time when the MBAs
defined the objectives and strategies of a business and computer scientists
would simply implement the IT portion of that plan. But today technology is so
powerful and complex, so essential to any large enterprise, that it can no
longer be considered separate from the business model itself, says Akella.
Hence the CEOs and COOs of tomorrow need to have a nuanced and sophisticated
grasp of knowledge science and services.
“KSEM is giving students the skills to address challenges
faced in high-tech enterprises that require an integrated understanding of both
technology and business to solve complex problems,” says Patrick Mantey, Baskin
Professor of Computer Engineering and director of the Information Technologies
Institute (ITI) and CITRIS at UCSC.
“Services are those things you pay
for that you cannot drop on your foot—from dental work to high-end
problem-solving in technical areas of information management problems,”
Economists estimate that services now account for between 50
and 80 percent of the US
economy. The “knowledge services” that are the bailiwick of high-tech
industries constitute a huge and growing portion of that.
Each time a service is delivered, whether the interaction is
successful or not, the provider has a chance to learn something valuable from
the encounter. The businesses that succeed in learning, and in plowing their
new knowledge right back into their operations, will remain on top, says
Akella. Those that do not will fall behind their competition or simply drown in
KSEM is a hybrid program, the
product of the marriage between business management studies and computer
science and information technology, says Mantey, and it focuses these newly
intertwined perspectives on forging the future of the global knowledge-based economy.
“Students learn some
elements of marketing, sales, finance, product development, and about the
supply chain,” says Akella. “They learn how to integrate all those in a
universe where we are constantly getting information. How do you mine that
information to come to the best possible business decisions? That is the
question we ask,” he says.
Helping businesses gain the edge that comes from good
information management, and teaching computer savvy engineers and business
savvy managers how to do that, are two of KSEM’s
principal aims. The program currently offers its
graduates a certificate, but Masters and Ph.D. certification are in the works;
those degree programs will likely be available by Fall 2008, says Mantey.
Information management will be an
essential part of every successful future enterprise, says Akella. Some of
those enterprises will provide “knowledge services,” such as Google and Yahoo!
do, but even those that sell hardware, or airplanes, or flights, will have to
keep improving their knowledge management if they wish to stay afloat and
When an enterprise is small, it can maintain its learning
curve naturally, says Akella. But in a large and fast-growing business like
CISCO Systems, there may be a thousand engineers answering customers’ questions
every day. The lessons learned from those encounters may not necessarily make
their way to the institutional knowledge base, unless someone, or some system,
is making sure they do.
“Cognitive overload is a common symptom for quickly growing
businesses with tons of information,” says Akella. “Even if service knowledge
makes its way into a business, getting it back out can be tricky. If an
engineer working a help-line does a search on a question that turns up a
thousand documents, what use will they be to him? He needs one or two
bull’s-eyes, not a warehouse full of near misses.”
Often service providers are caught between ignoring the
information they have access to and being overwhelmed by it. Unless you provide
some guidance, the system cannot tell which document is closest to your need.
Akella and his colleagues and students at KSEM have been
working with CISCO for nearly a year to do just that. The relationship has been
fruitful for both the program and for CISCO, says Akella. Increasing the
efficiency of CISCO’s help center by only a percentage point or two can be
worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the company annually, says Akella. And
being surrounded by the top high-tech companies in the world makes a great
learning environment for his students, he says. “The enterprises themselves are
the test beds for our research,” he says.
In the past year, as KSEM has grown, Mantey and Akella have
also seen a national consensus growing around the importance of knowledge
sciences and services, they say. The
National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Sciences have each
stressed the importance of investing resources in knowledge sciences. And this
year IBM, Oracle, and 15 other leading technology
companies formed the Service Research and Innovation (SRI) Initiative, whose
mission is to draw funding toward service research, development, and innovation
in the technology industry.
“Knowledge science and knowledge services are here to stay,”
says Mantey. “They are no more a fad than electrical engineering was a fad.
They will be defining elements of the enterprises of the future.”