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Information architecture Translates KM theory into practice

This article appears in the issue June 2001 [Volume 10, Issue 6]

As companies transfer more and more of their business onto the Web and the popularity of enterprise portals continues to grow, information design becomes an important consideration. The success of an enterprise portal is directly linked to information organization and retrieval. Unless workers can find the information they need, portal initiatives will fail. Today every corporation faces the problem of how to acquire, store and share information--both information provided externally to customers and internally to its workers, business partners, supplies, etc.

Thoughtful Web site design can be the difference between success and failure when constructing an intranet, and employing the services of a professional information architect can help a company translate KM theory into practice. Both information architecture and KM focus on helping people locate, evaluate and share information. KM provides the theoretical underpinnings for portal projects; information architecture provides the specific details of implementation. Information architecture can offer step-by-step blueprints to convert abstract information organization theory into a working KM environment.

KM is touted as a tool for corporate transformation. As a business philosophy, KM maintains that the explicit and tacit knowledge of employees can transform an organization’s ability to solve problems and create new knowledge. Many analysts argue that the primary focus of KM is finding ways to connect groups of people. Content management is an effective way of creating and supporting communities of practice, and in fact, most KM programs take the form of portal construction projects.

Effective information architecture changes organizational behavior because it refigures the processes by which knowledge is created and used. Adding structure to enterprise information through Internet or portal initiatives enhances a corporate culture of knowledge sharing. Portal architecture and content management tools build an awareness and cultural receptivity to KM.

Defining information architecture

Information architecture is the study of organizing information so people can find what they’re looking for. It’s a nascent profession that pulls ideas from Web design, library science, architecture, cultural anthropology and literary theory (see Diagram A). Information architects order knowledge on corporate Web sites and intranets.

The heart of information architecture is designing organization systems (deciding how content is grouped), creating consistent labeling schemes (deciding what to call the content groups) and crafting different navigational paths through a body of texts (deciding how users will search and browse the content groups). For example, information architects determine whether a Web site should be organized by:

  • topic (such as the WalMart site, which divides content into Electronics, Music, Movies and so forth); ;

  • metaphor (the Red Envelop Web site, which orders content by Lifestyle with categories like "The Connoisseur," "The Gadget Guru," "The Romantic" and so on); or;

  • task (the Martha Stewart Web site, which features a "To Do Today" list with entries such as "Make Pasta with Cauliflower," "Serve a Batch of Perfect Pancakes," "Select the Appropriate Vase for Bouquets," etc.).;

Information architects build taxonomies, develop navigation schemes and create site maps to facilitate knowledge access. They construct information retrieval tools that connect workers within and across corporate teams. In short, information architecture aims to create knowledge by ordering corporate data so users can complete tasks, collaborate with co-workers and conduct research with greater ease.

How information architecture serves a KM agenda

A fully integrated enterprise is the holy grail of information organization. Traditional enterprise computing is limited to the activities that occur behind a company’s firewall. The Web expanded that definition to include any application that links products and buyers. Enterprise computing systems now extend to business partners, consultants and customers. Within that context, KM can be defined as a process of aggregating and ordering all the intellectual assets of a corporation including recorded information, corporate lore, third-party information and the tacit knowledge of employees. Developing a system that manages the intellectual assets of an enterprise is neither easy nor obvious. But both information architecture and KM share a basic underlying goal: to promote greater efficiency and productivity through content management. Both are concerned with creating platforms that encourage community interaction and knowledge discovery.

Information architects specialize in developing information sharing designs that do just that. At the beginning of an intranet project, for example, they are called on to determine the scope and purpose of an enterprise portal. Beyond setting out a Web site’s goals, they inventory a Web site’s content and functional requirements. Information architects specify what topics will be covered and the depth to which each topic will be indexed.

Noted information architect Peter Morville emphasizes the "strange connections" that animate the field. He defines information architecture as "a means to create learning and relationship-building opportunities. When we create unusual relationships between people or products or ideas, we create a tension that invites learning." Information architects create multiple channels for knowledge transfer. That includes indexing FAQ or best-practices documents, establishing forums for peers to exchange information or building a site index. The bottom line for both information architecture and KM is not building a portal or taxonomy construction per se but using those tools to spur innovation and knowledge reuse.

The complexity of enterprise knowledge

Many corporations are so complex that enterprise information is difficult to capture and share. Moreover, in the current business environment of rapid change and shifting technologies, even knowledge that is readily identified can quickly become obsolete.

Because knowledge is fluid and ephemeral, corporations extract competitive advantage from their internal data only when it is ordered. According to the 18th century wit Samuel Johnson, knowledge takes two forms: the information we possess ourselves and knowing where to find the information we need. It is rare for a single worker to possess all the information needed to solve a problem. In most organizations emphasizing how to locate and use information is a more practical strategy than urging workers to master vast amounts of knowledge.

Information architects actually take that process one step further: They go beyond linking workers with the information they know they want. They create collaborative work spaces and navigational structures that promote casual browsing, and users learn about products, services or information that they didn't even know existed. Taxonomies and FAQ documents, for example, encourage serendipitous discovery. As users browse through structures of knowledge, they refine and extend what they know.

Taxonomies: a case study in associative learning

Before discussing the particulars of portal architecture, I’d like to examine how users interact with taxonomies (or Yahoo-style directories), because it illustrates how information structures spark creativity, associative thought and brainstorming. Taxonomies introduce workers to related ideas. If a Web manager wanted to learn about information architecture, for instance, he or she would find (1) organizational systems, (2) naming schemes and (3) navigation listed as subsections of the larger topic. Workers can traverse a knowledgebase by clicking on associated keywords. As workers explore the conceptual relationships mapped out in a taxonomy, they can click forward and back, take another turn, retrace their steps or leap wildly about.

Experiencing a knowledgebase in this way allows workers to create their own narratives within a defined set of terms and associations. The defining structure is the result of the information architecture of the Web site itself. By clicking on the taxonomy, all workers are exposed to the same materials, but the actual route each worker takes and the resulting "travel narrative" each tells is the result of his or her own interests and imagination. Serendipity here, then, is controlled but not suppressed. And the associations one makes provide the creative experience of the intranet and brainstorming-style connections.

Portal architecture facilitates exchange among communities of interest

Although the principles of KM are broadly accepted, how to implement a KM project is a key sticking point. An integrated database or knowledge repository is often the first step along the KM path. Because KM should be part of everything an organization does and part of everyone’s job, the easiest way to implement a KM initiative is through networking and computing.

KM can be understood as a four-part, closed-loop process that returns a net gain of enterprise knowledge (see Diagram B):

  • Capturing knowledge--Ideas are synthesized in a memo, sales figures are reported in an e-mail, a list of corporate expenditures is placed in a relational database.;

  • Analyzing and cataloging knowledge—Raw data becomes information when it is placed in a meaningful context. Categorization is essential to the success of a KM solution because it provides a framework for other users to locate information. FAQs, "best-practices" documents and a corporate directory of experts are examples of codified knowledge.;

  • Sharing knowledge--Enterprise portals can encourage collaboration. Workers amend and update resources as they use them. That modification leads back to the first step of enterprise learning. Users loop their learning and new information back to a database. In that way, portals are built on knowledgebases that are relevant, focused and available to everyone in the company. ;

  • Creating knowledge--Most fundamentally, KM and information architecture are about enhancing capacities for knowledge creation.;

Databases do more than provide a single point of entry for information and a single log-on. They hook people together and promote interactive problem solving. Integrated databases are important because they make the best insights of each employee available to all. That means that each worker has access to the collective wisdom of the organization. Project archives, for instance, are an excellent way to encourage virtual teamwork and dialogue. They are clearinghouses where communities of interest have access to current and past project information. A project archive functions as an electronic work space that both stores information and provides a focal point for collaboration.

Thesaurus construction: updating the knowledgebase

Thesaurus design is another way to update the corporate knowledgebase. A thesaurus or list of synonyms connects a searcher’s terms with the indexer’s terms. For example, if a worker types "teaching" into a search engine but an indexer used the term "pedagogy," a thesaurus would ensure that relevant documents are still delivered to the user. A thesaurus allows workers to search or browse a portal with terms that are intuitive to them. Because workers are adding and deleting terms in a thesaurus, the structure of the knowledgebase is always changing to suit the needs of the enterprise.

Interpreting knowledge

Information architects are charged with codifying information so that it is meaningful to people across an entire organization. Each community of practice develops its own jargon, shorthand and habitual language. Information architects define categories of information organization that reach across those different knowledge communities. The ability to integrate knowledge across an organization is directly dependent on a broadly meaningful organizational scheme. For example, data warehousing and data marketing are both important components of a company’s technical infrastructure. Yet, data warehousing tends to fall under the control of the IT team, while data marketing is owned by the sales and marketing division. The information architect is charged with crafting a labeling or naming system for an intranet that makes sense to both the IT division and the sales and marketing team.

The value of information architecture lies in its capacity to aid information interpretation. Knowledge structures (e.g., taxonomies, Web site architecture, navigational paths, site maps, etc.) help workers locate and then make sense of the information they find.

Interface as kaleidoscope

Sharing information across the enterprise is more subtle than showing the same piece of information to everyone in the same way. Each audience may desire a different view of the underlying information. Data can be filtered and organized in a slightly different way according to the needs of various user populations. For example, a directory composed of technical terms might be appropriate to show engineers or software developers but might be utterly incomprehensible to the company CEO. A number of software products such as Semio’s Taxonomy, Autonomy’s Portal-in-a-Box and Verity’s Intelligent Classifier will automate the process and generate different views of underlying data for different audiences. That allows a corporation to target the specific information needs of a particular audience.

Information architecture: a three-way balancing act

Intranets and portals are just tools. Getting workers to communicate effectively is the real challenge. The best way to encourage the creation and reuse of knowledge is to examine corporate information in its totality. That is, successful information architecture depends on three variables: users, content of the information resources and business context. An effective portal or intranet links users and content, against the backdrop of an organization's business strategy and corporate culture. While some commentators call for "user-centered" design, the information-seeking behavior of specific audiences must be balanced against the content of the resources to be organized and an organization’s business model.

A successful portal construction project is all about creating knowledge structures that help connect workers and provide context for information retrieval. Only by understanding how specific types of information relate to your business goals can KM efforts achieve real business value.

Katherine C. Adams is an information architect and free-lance writer, e-mail kadams@mohomine.com .


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