The Matchmaker in the Machine At Northrop Grumman, Morgan Stanley, and other sprawling companies, new collaboration software is turning strangers into like-minded work partners.
(Business 2.0) – Scott Shaffar, a senior IT executive at Northrop Grumman, spent the late 1980s helping guide the company's plans for the B-2 bomber. But the 41-year-old with a Ph.D. in mechanical and aerospace engineering considers that busywork compared with what he's on the hook for now: getting more than 10,000 employees from the nation's second-largest defense contractor to share valuable information with one another--and squeezing more productivity out of the company's massive arsenal of IQ.
Last summer, for instance, one of Northrop's top engineers, Werner Hinz, had to prepare a design bid for a next-generation unmanned airplane for the Pentagon--one that travels at several times the speed of sound. To do the job, Hinz needed some high-level expertise on hypersonics. But no one he knew, or knew of, had what he needed.
So Hinz turned to a software application that Shaffar had purchased for workers in dozens of offices around the world. The program combs through thousands of employee profiles and millions of internal documents--from e-mails to PowerPoint slides--and suggests synergistic matchups between workers, based on what the software's algorithms perceive as someone's interests and expertise. After Hinz typed in a few phrases and keywords, the program fired back a message listing two colleagues in his building--people Hinz had met, but whose backgrounds he didn't know--who might be good sources. Hinz called the first one; two minutes later he knew he'd found the right person.
Called ActiveNet, the application is the hot product that's turned Silicon Valley-based startup Tacit Knowledge Systems profitable just four years after its founding. Since the CIA's venture firm, In-Q-Tel, invested in Tacit in 2001--seeking better intelligence-analysis tools after 9/11--companies like Northrop, GlaxoSmithKline, and Morgan Stanley have joined its elite roster of clients. Each sees the same potential in the technology--to better mobilize the brains behind a company's keyboards in a way that makes org charts, directories, and even the brightest project managers seem hopelessly obsolete.
While the software driving nascent "social networking" websites like Friendster has proven adept at discovering who knows whom in a given set of personal profiles, ActiveNet takes the concept up another notch. It attempts to understand who knows what by constantly monitoring e-mail, reports, and other documents. "Even if it's programmed to simply draw out noun phrases from your sent e-mail," Shaffar says, "over time it builds a complete profile. It's the notion of 'I don't know what I don't know.' I don't know that there are others out there who are working on the same things that I am or whose work may impact mine. We think it's pretty powerful."
So does $22 billion Aventis, where Tacit software is helping scientists put idle research back to work on tomorrow's products. One researcher in Bridgewater, N.J., recently sought help with protocols for recruiting clinical-trial volunteers for a multiple sclerosis drug. Tapping into Tacit's software--which tracks 2,700 users in the pharmaceutical firm's R&D division--he found a colleague in France who, in turn, introduced him to a professor who'd done similar work. According to Aventis, the software shortened the drug trial by two months. "In big pharma, a constant problem is that one guy's garbage result is someone else's 'Aha,'" says David Gilmour, Tacit's chief executive. "Until now there was no way to recycle and share the discoveries that are made through trial and error, day in and day out."
Of course, ActiveNet can be only as omniscient as its users allow it to be. Sitting on the servers that make up a company's IT backbone, it data-mines the myriad text-based documents that each computer generates and stores somewhere in the network. (It can't touch files on your hard drive, Gilmour says.) The software compiles and updates profiles of each person's specialties and projects by picking out key phrases in documents; then it sends lists of compiled topics to users daily, so they can choose which ones to keep in their profiles. Shaffar includes "knowledge management" in his profile, for instance, and uses the system to search for job prospects.
Sound like the umpteenth coming of Big Brother in the workplace? Gilmour designed ActiveNet with several layers of privacy protection to allay those fears. First, workers act as the gatekeepers of their own profiles, and choose what content is accessible to which groups of colleagues. Next, corporate IT administrators do not have access to ActiveNet's encrypted profiles or passwords. And the system doesn't retain copies of e-mail or other documents after it has finished mining data from them.
Shaffar believes that the program strikes the right balance between privacy and participation. A worker who gets zero hits from a simple directory search can expand his or her query and prompt ActiveNet to look for anyone working on that topic. When the software finds someone, it proceeds with discretion: It sends an e-mail to the "target" respondent, giving him or her the option to make contact with the person who sent the query, to share information anonymously, or to ignore the request entirely.
Tacit won't divulge how the CIA uses its product, but according to one intelligence expert, the software is part of a post-9/11 classified program that links CIA analysts with like-minded counterparts at other agencies working on counterterrorism investigations. ActiveNet has proven to be a labor-saving tool, says In-Q-Tel CEO Gilman Louie. After 9/11, the agency had to ramp up efforts overnight but couldn't meet the new demand simply by hiring more people. Louie says, "It takes eight years to train an analyst. The only option is to make the staff you have more productive. The software helps them do that."
How much it helps, though, is tricky to measure--which makes Tacit, for now, an experimental luxury for giants like Northrop. (A permanent license for ActiveNet starts at a whopping $170 per employee profile.) But the software does seem to overcome a quirk of human nature. Just as neighbors can share an apartment building for years and never cross paths, people like Hinz and Shaffar are proving that the same thing happens at the office. When programs intervene and make introductions, the results can go straight to the bottom line: Last fall, the engineers Hinz assembled for the hypersonic airplane project landed a $1.5 million contract to design it.