In this knowledge-driven world of the 21st century, companies are seeking to implement technology solutions for environmental information needs that seem to be continually changing and expanding. This article will identify key needs and outline possible technology solutions, focusing on the information and tools needed by the environmental professional, an important knowledge worker in this new business environment.
Consider the example of a U.S.-based manufacturer that has a number of operations and facilities around the world (GlobeCo.). GlobeCo. has long been an industry leader and is respected for its environmental commitment and innovation. In recent years, the company has progressed from using a manual-based environmental management system (EMS) to making significant use of information technology in its EMS at many of its facilities. The EMS is maintained at each location by environmental managers, supported by one or more staff, as well as a team of environmental auditors based at head office.
Increasing global competitiveness is forcing GlobeCo. to respond to change and identify new opportunities more quickly than ever before. The company therefore has set demanding strategic environmental goals for 2000 that include implementing technology that will allow it to:
- follow the ISO 14000 EMS model throughout its operations
- integrate the tasks, roles and responsibilities for corporate programs and statutory compliance (and SOPs) into its EMS
- perform EMS implementation and progress monitoring audits
- perform task planning with the ability to generate overviews for monitoring all activities by staff members and their supervisors
- register/report on emissions, hazardous materials, wastes, MSDSs, etc.
- provide staff training and support for all of the above.
GlobeCo.’s environmental professionals not only work in different functional groups at their specific locations, they often also participate in other departmental teams and groups around the world. They therefore need technology, such as web-enabled groupware, that will allow them to exchange information and collaborate on systems, projects, reporting, etc. regardless of their physical location. To succeed in meeting all of its goals, the company must implement and maintain an environmental knowledge management system that is integrated with its overall business management system.
What is environmental knowledge management and why is it important?
The way environmental professionals work is changing. Many environmental 'knowledge' jobs increasingly can be characterized as decision cycles rather than as a fixed sequence of well-defined tasks in terms of their workflow. These decision cycles may be part of an ongoing system or framework, such as an EMS, or they may relate to a specific project, such as a compliance audit. To carry out their responsibilities, environmental professionals must assemble tasks and knowledge in response to business cycles and events. This requires them to look for opportunities, select one or more for action, find relevant information or experts, build scenarios and make decisions. For example, in meeting GlobeCo.’s new strategies, the company’s environmental professionals will have project-specific responsibilities such as implementing new systems and conducting audits, as well as ongoing responsibilities for maintaining and sustaining the new systems. Both types of job function may lead them to engage in a combination of actions including: implementing procedures and training, planning for future changes, making decisions about new ways of doing things, consulting experts such as legal counsel or engineers, creating forecasting scenarios, researching and analyzing possible effects of changes on other systems, identifying new opportunities or problems that may arise as a result of the changes, and lastly, monitoring the changes in order to provide feedback for system improvements or future projects.
As they fulfill their responsibilities, GlobeCo.’s environmental professionals also will need to incorporate their new knowledge into the company’s environmental knowledge management system. Environmental knowledge management is a component of a powerful business strategy known as 'knowledge management'. In broad terms, knowledge management is intended to improve the use of knowledge within a company (often called intellectual capital). As such, it is a crucial component of business management. It requires a company to create, capture and share knowledge, facilitate collaboration between employees, business partners and customers, and provide broad access to the company’s information assets. The goals of knowledge management are to share information in order to promote innovation and learning and improve corporate performance, and an environmental knowledge management system thus provides a means of aggregating collective environmental intellect and knowledge into a framework that will enhance learning, collaboration and innovation.
The environmental knowledge management system architecture
What does the structure of an environmental knowledge management system look like? To implement an environmental knowledge management system, there must be widespread access to information across technology platforms (e.g., intranets, extranets, the Internet and desktop and transaction processing environments), tools for collaboration and communication, and technologies for mapping, indexing and searching information. As such, three basic components or layers of an environmental knowledge management system may be identified: (1) information storage, (2) rules, logic and process, and (3) system interface.
Information storage layer: This layer consists of environmental information sources, types and formats, and can include relational databases for structured information, such as environmental performance measures, and groupware (e.g., Microsoft Outlook, Lotus Notes) for collaboration, email, scheduling, tasks, etc., as well as document applications, textual data in the form of EMS worksheets, web pages, discussion groups, email, visual training videos and audio information. For benchmarking environmental information, a large SQL server is needed.
A key challenge in implementing the environmental information storage layer, as well as for the other two layers, is to integrate text retrieval, groupware and database technologies. In other words, how can GlobeCo.’s environmental professionals around the world access the wide range of information sources (e.g., intranets, media management, file servers, Internet, real life) and formats (XML, HTML, ASCII, GIF, etc.) that are stored in different locations? Only by collaboration between systems and users can this access be provided. Active mechanisms of accessing environmental information are needed to identify items of interest and proactively present them to the appropriate users (often referred to as the 'push' method). This involves a continual process of monitoring environmental information and providing it to the users who need it. Environmental information cannot just be amassed and amalgamated, it also must be structured and navigational tools provided.
Rules, logic and process layer: This layer contains the rules, logic and processes that link the environmental information to the uses made of it by people and systems. Three areas may be identified: (1) rules and logic that link environmental information to users and allow them to interact with the information, e.g., expert environmental applications for environmental managers and auditors such as ISO 14000 software, (2) rules and logic that interact with system users and tie into other corporate systems, e.g., environmental performance software that links to the company’s accounting system, and (3) overall integration of systems, including groupware.
In terms of functionality, process applications in this layer may serve as help systems (e.g., databases of legislation, regulatory interpretations and other tools to support compliance assurance and verification), and to locate experts (e.g., directories, online consultation, discussion groups), record best practices, provide training resources, flag corrective actions needed, facilitate response to emergencies, find associations and alert users to new information (e.g., news feeds).
System interface layer: Content from the information storage layer is delivered to system users by the system interface layer. This component allows environmental professionals to access the information in the system, providing an interface through which they can navigate the system and use the various applications within it. For example, the system interface could consist of a document manager/Windows Explorer-type interface, a web-based home page/browser/portal (the Digital Dashboard found in Microsoft’s Outlook or Lotus Notes), or any other visual desktop presentation such as a custom-designed interface using Microsoft forms and visual component tools. It could operate through a push or a pull mechanism, and/or by user request. Logic embedded within the system interface allows it to generate user profiles, such that the information presented is intelligent, based on the needs and preferences of individual users (for example, by displaying the projects with which they are involved and the resources that they need to carry out their project responsibilities). The view in each user’s 'workspace' may thus be customized for the user.
The system interface serves as the entry point to the environmental professional’s workspace, taking individuals to the actions, tools and information that relate to their unique roles and responsibilities in the systems and projects to which they are assigned. The advantage of this workspace is that it provides tools and information to the environmental professional while hiding the underlying technology, thereby providing efficient access to multiple knowledge sources using a range of presentation media in a single, unified interface.
Conclusion – the new environmental workspace
What does the environmental professional’s workspace actually look like and how does it function? The workspace must include all the information needed by the environmental professional, technology that allows the professional to control access to the information, and the means of connecting with other experts, interest groups and work teams in order to learn, share, collaborate and innovate. The underlying technology must continuously analyze the professional’s particular needs for knowledge, affiliations and expertise, map and integrate the information into the workspace, and keep all of this current in response to changing user needs. To customize the workspace, each environmental professional’s patterns of work must be understood, both within a specific organizational group, project and/or facility, and with respect to other knowledge workers in the company, in order to link personal tools with group resources.
In the case of GlobeCo., the company’s environmental goals can be broken down into two broad workflow categories: environmental projects (e.g., implementing an ISO 14000 EMS and conducting compliance audits), and ongoing activities (such as maintenance of the EMS and regulatory reporting requirements). For the project management component, the environmental professional’s workspace would present and/or include access to project information, team members, contacts, tasks and timelines, as well as discussion groups, training resources and other decision support tools. For the ongoing system management component, it would also provide monitoring information, track tasks, scheduling and team members, as well as identify stakeholders and maintain resources. All of this information would be linked to other company information, processes and individuals, so that the environmental knowledge can be shared throughout the business (e.g. with other processes such as purchasing, production planning and design and manufacturing) in order to enhance the company’s productivity and innovation.
In conclusion, the environmental knowledge management system is intended to maintain and enhance the environmental knowledge base of a company in order to meet the information needs of its environmental professionals. Insofar as environmental knowledge management includes diverse content, integrated diverse services and rich presentation, it has three information technology imperatives: inclusion of a web browser to provide a common user access platform, integration of disparate content stores, allowing for common access methods independent of the information type, and use of internet standards for universal connectedness. By incorporating the unique knowledge and workflow of each environmental professional into overall corporate knowledge management and business processes, the environmental knowledge management system and its workspace become vital components of doing business in the global economy.