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With the title "Living and Working in the Information Society", IST98 took place in Vienna from November 30th to December 2nd 1998. The following article has as its starting point a summary of a presentation given by Hermann Maurer of the Technology University of Graz in Austria. The summary was published in the Summary Porceedings of IST98. As a word of caution, I was unable to attend Hermann Maurer's presentation and have only been able to react to what he wrote.

Knowledge management

In an article about knowledge management for IST98 recently held in Vienna, Hermann Maurer talks of the need to "store as much as possible of the information that resides as corporate knowledge". By "corporate knowledge" he means that knowledge that is only available in the heads of those working for the company. The motivation for fixing knowledge in that way is to stop it from being lost by the company when people leave. After all, in a knowledge society, the major capital of companies is the knowledge of its employees with the associated problem of how that knowledge can best be preserved from being poached by competitors or simply leaking away as a result of the increasing mobility of employees?

Maurer also suggests that fixing knowledge can solve another corporate knowledge problem: that of the inefficient use of knowledge due to compartmentalisation within companies. He quotes a CEO as saying "If our employees only knew what our employees know, we would be a much better company."

There are several problems to Maurer's idea. First of all, seeking to "fix" all such knowledge in computers, as the author himself admits, is currently impossible because computers are not able to "create shadows of such knowledge in a computer system". What's more, even attempting to do so in any extensive way is extremely time consuming because it requires transcribing that knowledge in some written form and storing it in the computer. Subsequently someone else has to read and assimilate it. Maurer seems to suggest that the solution partly lies in the "restructuring of processes in the organisations concerned" so as to be able to formalise certain knowledge processes and then to create corresponding computerised knowledge management systems.

Another problem is that "indiscriminate" storing of information pays no heed to the different lifecycles of information. Some key knowledge changes relatively slowly and can easily and economically be collected in text or multimedia form. In addition knowledge that may have a relatively short lifecycle but is frequently used or used once by a great number of people may well be worth recording in a computer. This is what is often called FAQ's in the Internet world. However much essential knowledge is complex, context-bound and changes continuously and rapidly. Collecting and up-dating such information would be a truly mammoth task if it were at all possible.

Rather than adapting human knowledge processes to those of the machine so as to facilitate the work of computer-based systems, rather than thinking in terms of fixing knowledge in computers, why not leave that knowledge in the heads of people and concentrate energy on using computer networks as intermediaries in identifying and locating that knowledge and in stimulating its flow and development. It is not the knowledge itself that is stored in computers, but rather pointers to those people who have the knowledge. If exchange of that knowledge is then encouraged and facilitated, the knowledge is shared and more easily kept within the company in a usable and accessible form. In addition, thanks to the phenomenon of peer exchange which is capital in the formation of such changing, complex, context-based know-how, the knowledge can grow and develop.

Alan McCluskey, St-Blaise Share or comment
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Created: December 7th, 1998 - Last up-dated: December 8th, 1998