Knowledge Management

Knowledge management is one of those very ill-defined buzzwords that everybody claims to be doing. Also, it’s an area that exposes some quite fundamental ideological differences. Which is why it’s an interesting area. Here’s my take on it.

The Problem We’re Trying To Solve

Knowledge Management is fundamentally about creating a forum where people can teach each other. The same person will contribute with his knowledge in some areas and learn from other people in other areas. People want to learn and they want to teach. I like to think of it as cooperatively maintaining a knowledge base.

It’s vital that managers don’t take the “management” part of “knowledge management” too seriously. It’s not really about managing knowledge at all, at least not in any top-down sort of way. It’s all about providing the best tools possible to help users to share what’s on their mind, not yours. That is usually what produces the most interesting, useful and worthwhile information — the internet and the web is the world’s largest knowledge base, and it’s worked pretty well so far.

There are, obviously, two uses of a knowledge base: You can either put stuff into it, or you can get stuff out of it. It’s the same group of people, but as a person, you’ll usually be doing one at a time.

Putting Stuff In To It

Putting stuff into the knowledge base can generally take two forms: Say you have just finished some project and you’ve learned from it. You should be able to just put in whatever you feel that you’ve learned and have it be available to other users. It’s important that this be completely free-style, so users can post anything from longish articles to a short book review or simply a link to some interesting web page.

The other form of putting stuff in there is when someone (your employer?) decides that they want to collect information on certain types of objects of interest to the community. Someone (a moderator or your boss?) would define a set of object types and, for each object type, a set of questions. Your answers to those questions becomes part of the knowledge base. The good thing about this form is that it doesn’t require the same writing and teaching skills on the part of the author. The downside is that it might obscure the important lessons that the author has to share.

Getting Stuff Out Of It

When a users turns to the knowledge base it will most often because he has a problem at hand that he’s trying to solve, or a theme he’s interesting in learning more about because he needs the knowledge. Users are directed, which is good, because only directed attention can generate valuable knowledge. (Remember, that the knowledge base can only give information; it’s up to the individual to turn that into knowledge.)

As a starting point, we should do everything we can to <a href=”/software/scoring-content”>help users find what they want. But sometimes the user will not find what he wants, either because our search tools are not good enough or because the information is not in there. So he should be able to pose a question that will be read by hundreds or thousands of real people. This is a traditional <a href=”http://photo.net/bboard/q-and-a.tcl?topic_id=21&topic=web%2fdb”>Q&A forum, but we should make sure there’s a tie-in with the knowledge base.

We should of course record all the Q&A threads and make sure it shows up in future searches. More than that, if a question is simply answered by pointing to an item already in the knowledge base, we should make sure that if a user in the future goes looking for an answer to this question, he’ll find that item directly. I don’t know how that could be done, other than by having moderators that go over the Q&A’s and re-categorize or add some keywords to the item. Also, if there isn’t an item in the knowledge base, a moderator might find the question worthy of one, and ask someone to write about it. So we should have a good moderator interface that facilitates this work.

Another way to get things out is to subscribe to alerts on the content. The thing about alerts is that they don’t make sense if they never fire, but they also don’t make sense if you get hundreds a day. That’s an artifact of the human mind. Users should be able to register alerts on categories or keywords or anything, either instantly or as a daily/weekly summary.

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