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What is Knowledge Management?

Knowledge Management is a term that's going to start cropping up here more often, but I need to try to define it.

First of all, it's related to information management, but is not the same thing simply because knowledge and information are not identical. Information is atomic and static, but knowledge is associative, rich, multi-layered, multi-faceted, contextual, accessible, and dynamic.

Information is what you get when you run a web search on Google. Knowledge is what you would get -- or at least get closer to -- if all of the results that came back from that search were relevant to what you actually wanted, and were presented consistently. That's still not quite knowledge, but it's closer.

Do a search for KM on Google, and you'll find (currently) 866 entries. The first is to Brint, apparently considered the best KM site on the net. Personally, I think it's a nightmarish site, but there's one important thing you can see at this site: Knowledge Management is is a topic for organizations, not for individuals.

In fact, it's a heavily commercialized term... there are a number of companies with software that specialize in KM, and they all define the term in a way that best suits their applications. Forget them.

Knowledge management is an attempt to do with the collective knowledge of an organization -- the individuals within the organization -- what an individual does with his own knowledge. That includes storing, cross-linking, categorizing, contextualizing, retrieving, and of course presenting.

KM requires computer technology, because it can't be done any other way. Remember, this isn't the knowledge of a single individual being available to that individual whenver its needed, we're talking about the knowledge of at least one individual being usable by at least one.

Consider a mailing address. Is it information, or knowledge? It's information. In fact, it's pretty useless information, because it's out of context.

Now let's put that address into a database. (Still useless!) Add to that address a million other addresses. (Now it's useless, times one million!) Now, though, attach some other information to each of those addresses, to make them usefull. Who lives or works there? How many people are there? What's the average income at that address? What was the organization's last interaction with this address? How many times have we dealt with this address? What department has had the most dealings with it? (You get the idea.)

Now you still have information, but at least you have a lot of it, right!? That information is useless, unless it's accessible to any individual in the organization that might need it.

Think of the organization as a single individual, or a single brain. All the different parts of your brain have different kinds of information, but most of your brain can use inforatmion from most of the rest of your brain to get its work done. For example, you don't have to try repeatedly to figure out how far to lift your foot for the first step in a flight of stairs, constantly misjudging and trying again. Why? Because one part of your brain sees how high the step is, and tells another part of your brain "how high" to lift the foot, which then works the levers and pushes the buttons to raise the foot to the right height.

What if you saw how high the step was, but didn't have any way to tell the rest of your brain? That would make the height of the stair just "information", because you couldn't do anything with it.

Knowledge Management isn't just about businesses, although as I said it is a heavily commercialized phrase. Online learning systems like Blackboard are also forms of KM. Think of a classroom as a sort of organization with the goal of increasing the knowledge of the organization and the individuals within it.

In a perfect class, using a perfect KM system, all of the knowledge and information generated by everyone (students and teacher) would be distributed, shared, catalogued, and available, all the time. One student finds something interesting, and looks into it a little further to learn more, and then stores what he's learned in the KM system. That doesn't mean just typing up some notes, though, it means adding keywords, categories, and links to other related information.

Hypertext has been a hot topic among Knowledge workers for many years -- since long before "the web" -- because hyperlinks are an example of what turns information into knowledge. It associates one bit of information with another, giving it context and value.

Valuable hyperlinks must be created by people. A person has to weigh the relativity of another piece of information, and create the link between the two. (It doesn't have to be as difficult as writing HTML A tags, mind you, but in the real world if you're not using hypertext then your organization must be small and be wililng to pick from a small set of tools.)

Hyperlinks are just one way to begin building associative data sets, the first stages of knowledge. Another is categorization and keywords...

Stay tuned, this is an important subject. I'll pick up where I left off, sometime this weekend.

Page last updated: 5/23/2006

is Seth Dillingham's
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