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Should we go back to paper-based KM?

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We can’t go back in time or re-create the past, but we can tap our past experiences to make better decisions in the present and future. As a community, we have decades of experience working with KM in a digital age, yet we have a poor record of learning from our mistakes. In my estimation, we can draw at least one big lesson from the past and use it to our advantage in the future. What is that lesson? When it comes to data and information, “less is more.”

This article’s title asks whether we should return to a paper-based approach to KM. The literal answer is, “No,” because we couldn’t even if we wanted to, but there are elements from that time that we might want to revisit and embrace. Analog is all the rage; vinyl record sales have been going up for some years; serious photographers are relearning or learning film for the first time and delighting in the darkroom. Printed books still considerably outsell digital books.

On the surface, it may seem that this is down to a sense of nostalgia, and for some, it is, but for many others, it is a demand for higher quality and a more meaningful experience. In information and knowledge management, technology improves swiftly, with generative AI (GenAI) being the latest and seemingly greatest advance. Yet KM’s quality, accuracy, viability, and business value have not advanced much during the past 20 years. Those are fighting words, but I stand by them.

When I started my career, paper-based documents and rows of filing cabinets full of well-ordered folders and documents dominated the office environment. But more important than the physical infrastructure of paper-based offices was the fact that they worked incredibly well. I was a document manager engaged in major oil and gas engineering projects; we knew where everything was and could find a data sheet or drawing quickly and with absolute certainty that it was the right document. I can only remember one time within a 10-year period when we could not locate a required document. I remember that so well because it turned out that an engineer had deliberately hidden the document in question (long story).

Changing expectations

Of course, the times have changed, as have expectations. Back then, people were content to wait a few days to receive information, but it’s expected to arrive at sub-second speed today, regardless of geographic location. It wasn’t a lack of interest in the paper that spurred change; it was the networking power of the internet. Hence, in the late 1990s, the drive was already shifting to a paperless office; billions have been spent on software and hardware to improve and modernize. We modernized and made countless filing clerks, document and records managers, secretaries, and the like redundant. But did we improve? There is little to suggest that we did, and there is less to suggest that the billions spent on software and hardware deliver a healthy ROI. Ultimately, we find ourselves in a bit of a bind. The sheer volume of largely useless data we have accumulated across the years severely limits the ability of AI to work well, and it comes at a heavy environmental and financial cost.

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