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Perspective on Knowledge: 250 Columns later

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“If you’ve done an Excite or Yahoo search lately, you understand that … it works great as long as you clearly know what you’re looking for and how it may be cataloged. Unless you don’t mind wading through 9,000 hits to find that elusive nugget of knowledge.”

Those sentences were near the beginning of one of my first columns for KMWorld in May 1998. In the 21 years since then, I seem to have written about 250 columns—one a month for 20 years, and then six per year once this magazine became bimonthly. (I’ve posted a linked list at https://bit.ly/kmworldDW.) Looking back at them, I can definitely say that knowledge management has changed and stayed the same. Definitely.

My column embarrassingly recounts the success of a keynote I gave at a PC Docs/KMWorld conference; I do not like the me who wrote that column. But it does serve as a reminder of the state of the art and industry back then.

“KM & the Human Element,” as that column was titled, began by reporting that few hands went up when I asked who had come to the conference already knowing something about KM. Fewer still had started on a KM project. But everyone felt overwhelmed and confused by information. After all, can you imagine getting 9,000 results on a search? Of course, these days, 9,000 is a rounding error for search results.

The rest of the column lists what I thought was driving interest in KM: capturing implicit knowledge, dealing with unstructured data, controlling structured data, mapping knowledge to processes, integrating intelligent retrieval with records management, and developing best practices.

The point of this recitation of drivers was that, as the column said, “KM is not a single channel, but rather multiple threads.” That’s an OK point, I suppose, although I wish I had a time machine so I could unmix those metaphors. But I’m not sure I totally trust what I wrote, since it’s too aligned with what I’ve come to recognize as a personal discomfort with neat definitions and bright lines—more of a personal disposition than a well-argued philosophical standpoint. Still, at an early stage of a discipline’s development, it’s probably generally a good rule not to scope it too tightly and firmly.

And arguably, 20 years later, knowledge management has indeed become a multi-threaded discipline, embracing just about everything related to knowledge, including data collection, the collaborative generation of ideas, human-understandable expressions of knowledge, the UX of information-rich libraries, and more. Other fields of practice have arisen ?within it and sometimes split off from it, all of which are signs of KM’s liveliness and value.

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