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Knowledge as I remember it

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Remember when it was 1990 and it was pretentious to even talk about businesses dealing with knowledge? Facts, sure. Strategic ideas, maybe. But knowledge was for academics and the people who wrote encyclopedias—back before the greatest encyclopedia in history, Wikipedia, was crowdsourced.

I’m not the person to give even an informal history of knowledge management (KM) as a business function. All I have are recollections marred by memory and the vagaries of my wandering path in the field, but, most of all, by my sometimes odd interests related to KM.

 For me, it started with document management. I was at Interleaf, arguably the first real-time WYSI-WYG text and graphics system, used primarily by teams working on large documents that had to meet industry or regulatory standards. Interleaf had bought an early document management system—RDM—that handled versioning, assembly, and collaboration. As I recall, it was in the early 1990s that Interleaf started talking about knowledge as a way of expressing why people use documents in the first place. And, to be honest, it was also a way to elevate the perceived value of our products. (I was a marketing person there.)

Interleaf wasn't the only company talking this way, of course. It was in the air, and for the same two reasons: Knowledge was genuinely the object of multiple technologies of the day, and “knowledge” sounds more expensive than “documents” or “text.”

By the mid-1990s, the term “knowledge management” had taken hold—at least well enough to be investable—but there wasn't much agreement about what it was. This is inevitable when a new category becomes a bandwagon.

It was around then that entire conferences started redefining themselves as being about knowledge. Electronic publishing. Search. Imaging. On-demand printing. But there wasn’t a lot of agreement about what should count as knowledge-based processes, how to manage them, or who should control them. Was the point of KM to pan for knowledge gold in the stream? Was it to open up access to all possible knowledge so users could find what they needed in ways that algorithmic filters could not? Was it to connect people into effective work teams or informal networks? Was knowledge the data, the information that came from the data, or the strategic knowledge creating the pillars on which the company stood? Was it the particulars that kept the business rooted in generalizations in the CEO’s keynote at the industry's biggest event?

The answer? All of the above. And that’s just fine. Knowledge is one of Western culture's cornerstone ideas. Over the millennia, it has included truths known by revelation in the desert, the results of experiments by scientists dropping coins from towers, and propositions that even Descartes could not doubt. That covers a lot of ground, which is how important ideas survive.

In each case, though, knowledge has been marked as the ideas on which we can rely. For example, the methodology of reliance has varied wildly, but the results are propositions that we believe we can safely build on without having to re-prove them every time.

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