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Research corner

While knowledge management (KM) practitioners design systems to support their organizations' goals, and knowledge workers use them on a day-to-day basis to carry out their activities, researchers are engaged in developing new techniques and tools that may eventually be incorporated into these systems. Research being conducted at several leading universities will influence the development of new products and codify the knowledge in the KM discipline itself.

At Johns Hopkins University, Jay Liebowitz, IT professor at the Graduate Division on Business and Management, has been developing a systematic procedure for knowledge audits. A knowledge audit is often a first step in creating a KM strategy. He examines knowledge flows and gaps, documents knowledge management practices and develops instruments to assist in the audits.

Liebowitz points out that many established disciplines can support the development of KM. "Principles in sociology as applied in social network analysis can be used to map knowledge flows and gaps in organizations, for example," he says. "We really do need to practice what we preach. It's important to reach out to other communities as we build the discipline."

One of Liebowitz's other research goals is to improve metrics to measure the success of KM initiatives. "Fuzzy logic [for example] is a way to quantify the humanistic side of knowledge management," he points out.

The Natural Language Processing Laboratory in the Department of Computer Sciences at Johns Hopkins also conducts research related to KM. Headed by David Yarowsky, the laboratory's areas of investigation include a variety of topics in language processing, such as "word sense disambiguation," to devise strategies for clarifying meaning when multiple interpretations are possible. Other topics under investigation include very large text databases, information retrieval and multilingual natural language processing.

Multilingual capability has particular relevance in today's dynamic world, where proliferation of news over the Internet is almost instantaneous. "Many Web pages are not in English," says Yarowsky, "or even in any of the world's top five languages. So we can't easily find out what people in many parts of the world are thinking.

"Ideally, we would like to be able to search in 100 languages and get a unified response," says Yarowsky. The response could reconcile the different ways of transliterating company names and places, describe relationships among entities and present all the results in the searcher's native language.

At George Washington University, the Institute for Knowledge and Innovation (IKI) has the stated mission of advancing the theories of knowledge, learning and innovation, and migrating them into practice for improved organizational performance.

"We are a knowledge-based economy," says Dr. Michael Stankosky, lead professor for knowledge management, "yet we still don't understand the raw material." About 60 doctoral candidates are working on such issues as developing common names for knowledge assets and criteria for measuring KM efforts in organizations.

One dissertation is focused on the impact of knowledge management technology on intellectual capital. It identifies eight main groupings of KM technologies in relation to core elements of intellectual capital (human, customer and relationship capital). The goal is to "help organizations in the selections of KM technologies that are more likely to succeed in managing their intellectual capital." KM research should codify and define principles that can be validated, according to Stankosky, so that practitioners can understand why KM systems work or don't work. 

Part of the Gatton College of Business and Economics at the University of Kentucky, the Kentucky Initiative for Knowledge Management (KIKM),was established in 1988 to conduct research in new computer-based methods for representing and processing knowledge, particularly in support of decision making. Director Clyde Holsapple says the KIKM focuses on the value of KM in productivity, agility, innovation and reputation. Recent projects include collaborative engineering of a basic ontology for the KM field; development and validation of the knowledge chain model; experimental investigation of the efficacy of alternative navigation structures; study of learning effects of multiparticipant collaborative systems; and analysis of the interplay among interorganizational technology, social networks and competitive dynamics.

The intensity of research in KM has been accelerating in recent years, judging by the diversity of research topics and the number of KM journals. At the time the KIKM was founded, for example, knowledge management was not on the radar screen in most business schools. According to Holsapple, though, that situation has changed dramatically.

"We expect to see widespread advances in the methods and technologies that can help knowledge-based organizations enhance their productivity, agility, innovation and reputation," he says. Now, KM research is carried out in many academic departments: business and management, computer science, as well as in interdisciplinary, KM-dedicated research centers. Those advances make a convincing case for the health of the discipline and the future of KM.

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