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  1. Technology
October 31, 1999

Stealth Company Tacit Builds Email Knowledge Discovery

By CBR Staff Writer

By Rachel Chalmers

By operating under the radar until its official launch today, November 1 1999, a Palo Alto, California-based start-up called Tacit Knowledge Systems Inc seems to have come up with a knowledge discovery system for email that avoids the worst excesses of its competitors. In the past, companies that have tried to record and rate employee email have tended to find users are extremely sensitive to the privacy implications of this activity. Vendors have tried warning users not to write anything in their email that they wouldn’t want to see posted on the cafeteria notice board. The trouble with that approach is that is tends to dumb down the very communication that the software is so laboriously attempting to preserve.

Tacit founder David Gilmour, who also co-founded the Giga Information Group, has taken exactly the opposite tack. He proceeded from the assumption that users are entitled to the privacy of their email, and that they should be able to control any and all information that is published about them for the benefit of the company at large. The user has to be in a position of total control and comfort, he admits – otherwise, the product just won’t get used. Our profiler gets a blind copy of your outbound mail, Gilmour explains. We’re not an email archiving system, we don’t keep mail. We do allow you to specify that mail can be passed onto a repository for publishing, in the rare cases where you might want to do that. Tacit’s KnowledgeMail uses various text-parsing algorithms, allied with a strong sense of time and duration, to analyze the text of outgoing email and to compile a private profile of the user in which are listed their interests and the amount of attention they devote to each one.

That profile is encrypted using a one-way hash, meaning no one can read it without the password. In fact, if the password is lost, there’s no way to recover the information at all. As Gilmour puts it, privacy no longer depends on the goodwill of the corporate IT staff. As Knowledge Mail discerns trends in the private profile, it notifies the user and asks whether they want information about their interests and pre-occupations published as part of a public profile. The user can decline or accept. If they accept, Knowledge Mail automatically builds a web page detailing their areas of interest. Now anyone in the company can contact that user for information or notify them of news in their field. If your knowledge and skills are out there, you will be able to engage in those activities, Gilmour explains. Even if you choose not to publish that information, however, Knowledge Mail can help. Your private profile will grow and refine, grow and refine automatically in the background, he says. Let’s say you’re looking for help on closing a deal with Mobil Oil. There’s no one in the published profiles who can help. At this point, you’d resort to Knowledge Sweep, a patent pending anonymous brokering protocol.

Knowledge Sweep alone can access the encrypted information in the private profile. Let’s assume it finds two people who correspond with friends inside Mobil. The software will alert those people of the existence of a request that might be of interest to them. One of the targets might decline to respond, but the other one might get in touch to help you with your research. It’s hard to imagine how that information could possibly have been obtained – and both parties’ privacy respected – without using software as an intelligent double-blind intermediary. This is what Tacit means by automated knowledge discovery. Another neat feature comes into play when users are drafting email. Before sending the message, they can click a button that will alert them to other people in the company who might be interested in the contents of that mail. Gilmour says: We synthesize a community on the fly in real time. We also tell you what it was in your draft that intercepted with each of the people proposed to you. If over- distribution of email to uninterested parties is one of the most pernicious problems with messaging, its evil twin is under- distribution of information to people who do actually need it.

Tacit’s elegant synthesis of knowledge discovery with built-in respect for personal privacy has obvious applications in academia, let alone the enterprise. Gilmour says he has been approached by chief of surgery at well-known teaching hospital, but that the company hasn’t been able to tackle the problem yet. We’re pre-occupied with solving R&D at chemical company, helping an oil company, and buffing up case engagements for a consulting firm, he reports happily. Knowledge Mail wouldn’t work at all without the emphasis on privacy, he acknowledges: The most interesting stuff is the stuff that’s most personal. Unfortunately the world we live in is a knowledge hoarding world for the most part. He says Tacit has met executives who find the whole idea of employee privacy questionable, but: We’ve been able without exception so far to convince them that they shoot themselves in the foot by creating this environment of surveillance… At best, there’s a wonderful tension between the individual and the group. We believe that if you unlock people they tend to do the right thing. Tacit is already in production use in Texaco and in Giga’s call center, where it’s used to route email inquiries to proper industry analyst. Now that its business is public knowledge, the company is bracing itself for explosive growth. We moved into our own new construction office building one week ago, Gilmour reports. The reception we’ve gotten has been great. I’ve been pleased with the idea that people do understand: mail really is the answer. á

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