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KM conference report

By Michael E. D. Koenig

During May, three important conferences dealt with the topic of knowledge management: the American Productivity and Quality Center KM conference in Arlington VA; The Conference Board’s Knowledge Management and Organizational Learning conference in New York; and the InfoToday conference in New York, which is divided into three subconferences, National Online, E-Libraries and KnowledgeNets. So what was new or hot or both in those meetings?

Training and education

The most obvious development or change in emphasis was the explicitness of the inclusion of training and education into the KM fold. It’s inclusion came with a particular twist, a twist best captured with the phrase just-in-time-training. We all remember the acronym JIT, perhaps we will see a new one, JITT. The idea, of course, is not to deliver conventionally sequenced and scheduled courses, but to modularize the contents of those courses so that training can be delivered electronically, precisely when and where needed, and in just the amount needed.

Another acronym/abbreviation observed for the first time was KMOL, Knowledge Management, Organizational Learning. Granted, The Conference Board has long called its conference “Knowledge Management and Organizational Learning”, but for the first time people tossed around KMOL as a phrase without the "and." Indeed, one speaker said that the contribution of KM was to create the teaching organization necessary for the learning organization to be successful.

EEM

Another new buzzword (but will it survive?) was EEM, enterprise expertise management, a phrase meant to be inclusive of “yellow page" directories of who in your organization has what skills. And yet another was communities of practice, a phrase presumably meant to be engaging because of its parallelism with other timely phrases such as customer relationship management and supply chain management. The danger here, of course, is that the phrase may be one that innately and unavoidably smacks of overselling. It is a difficult area to “manage.” A good example is a December 2001 article in Communications of the ACM entitled “Expert Finding for Collaborative Virtual Environments” (written by Mark Maybury, Ray D’Amore and David House). The article reported on a new system at Mitre (mitre.org) that automatically looks at e-mails, resumes, reports, etc., and then creates tags to describe the areas of expertise of individuals at Mitre. The irony is that the system did not perform as well as a system with an intellectually developed thesaurus and manually assigned index terms did in the 1970s, and the authors of the article gave no indication of their awareness of the previous system.

Context

The other major theme was that of understanding the context in which KM is to be deployed. Within that theme, numerous subthemes were woven together, including the rediscovery of pre-KM research, extra organization communities of practice, taxonomies and trust, which are described below:

The rediscovery of pre-KM research

As the importance of context is becoming more apparent, so too is the realization that important academic work illuminates context. Two classic names in the sociology of science and knowledge are being rediscovered or discovered for the first time by KM practitioners--one is Everett Rogers for his work on the diffusion and adoption of innovation, and the other is Thomas J. Allen for his comparisons of more productive and less productive R&D environments.

The rediscovery of research on research is also being driven by the recognition that innovation, not just better decision making, is an important KM driver. That, of course, leads to the question of context—how does one create the context that leads to innovation? That is where the research on research becomes important. That in turn leads to a broadening of what we mean by KM and a change of emphasis—no longer just context in the sense of creating the context that will facilitate KM, but rather KM as a tool to help create the context that will facilitate innovation. That then leads to the thesis that for many organizations, creating context is a strategic goal in its own right. That puts a new broad definition of KM right up there at the high table.

Extra organizational communities of practice

The hottest topic though in discussions at the breaks and meals was who had done what and how far had they progressed in bringing people, suppliers, dealers, etc., outside the organization into the communities of practice within the organization. The answer seems to be that not many have done much yet. It is recognized in principle that moving communities of practice from intranets to extranets is the way to go, and the hottest question at the social sessions was to find out other organizations’ experiences in that regard. A lot of asking, but not many answers, other than we are seriously thinking about it. The reasons for the go-slow seem to be worries about security and worries about management’s worries about security. Busting out beyond the organization is hard to do.

Taxonomies

Taxonomy continues to be a key word. Indeed, KM pioneer Hubert St. Onge, in recounting his lessons learned, declared that his experience had made him “obsessed with taxonomy.” The point repeatedly brought out by different speakers was that taxonomies must be context-specific. The awareness that taxonomies are the natural domain of librarians seems to be growing, but it still seems to be the case that we in the KM field feel compelled to call them something else ("information research specialists" or "content authors" were examples mentioned). The word “librarian” has been around for too long—how can we sell KM as new and trendy and good for whatever ails us if we admit that it has at base the taxonomies created by good old-fashioned librarians? Librarians will point out, of course, that the networked information age didn’t start with the Internet (as KM did), or even with the ARPANET, but rather with librarians using Tymnet and Telenet for remote database searching in the 1960s, and that librarians were pioneers in the networked information age. But the bosses and the people making KM investment decisions unfortunately don’t share that realization.

Trust

The importance of trust was also mentioned by a number of speakers. KM doesn’t work without trust. Larry Prusak’s proselytizing has been absorbed. Speaking of being absorbed, a wonderful quote that one speaker attributed to Tom Davenport, and a good end point for discussion of context and also for this report is that of the need for “baking knowledge into the organization.”

Mike Koenig is dean of the College of Information and Computer Science at Long Island University, e-mail michael.koenig@liu.edu

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