These days there is a lot of talk about knowledge management, but curiously, you don’t hear much talk about human memory.
People are natural knowledge managers. They receive new information all throughout each day and they decide what to retain and what to ignore, who to pas what on to because they would be interested, and what to consider as a problem that needs more thought. They do this effortlessly and, for the most part, unconsciously. They learn and get smarter as a result of every experience.
It is natural to wonder then, why those who worry about these same issues in knowledge management don’t simply just copy the methods that people use and build enterprise-wide knowledge management systems that mimic how people do the same tasks.
What’s that you say? We don’t know how people do these tasks? Not so fast. We know quite a bit. The reason knowledge management systems don’t mimic people is that those who build these systems are typically not cognitive scientists. Looking at KM from a Cognitive Science point of view changes everything.
Today, knowledge management systems store knowledge about manuals and procedures the way a library catalog system does the same job. They use an initial set of categories, to describe the domain of knowledge. Such a static system changes with great difficulty. Once you have designed it, it never really changes. More importantly, changing it requires outside intervention, maybe a committee and a total re-design.
Why does the ability to change how knowledge is indexed matter?
It is called learning. If a person doesn’t get smarter as a result of experience he is called dumb. A KM system simply get slower as a result of more information. It never has an aha experience, recognizing how two different documents considered together can shed a whole new light on an issue. It never has that experience because it actually understands nothing about what these documents contain. It is like a librarian who can’t read. We can do better.
A set of manuals about proper procedure (or even an entire library of books) will hold answers to many questions that an employee of an enterprise might have. While the answers are there, the questions are not. Who goes to a library with a business question like ‘how can I really improve my company’s value proposition?” Has no author within the library assets ever come across your kind of problem? Of course not.
Libraries are not indexed properly. They cannot be asked a question. They do not know your needs. When did your library send you a note early in the morning telling you it has the answer to the value proposition you were thinking about last night? Libraries and manuals hold solutions to one set of problems but do not recognize similar problems to which the solutions apply. They have no idea of what is currently going on in your life or in your enterprise and so cannot prioritize your needs. They also know nothing of what your colleagues are doing so if conflicts arise they cannot prevent errors.
You may say this is how it has always been in a library. Libraries hold books, papers and manuals. Search techniques find good matches when you use them properly. Why change it? What will this do for my business? Why should I even think about this issue?
Many companies are investing in knowledge management these days. Companies are getting bigger and more disconnected. What is known in one office may have never even been heard of in another. The more people write down what they know and what their experiences have been, the more important it is to be able to access that information without specifically asking for it. One person won’t know that another has just written. The KM system must be able to realize that the experience that Joe has just had will help Mary with the problem she is working on now.
Folders with hierarchical groups of information are not the cure. Neither are portals with access to all our library subscriptions using a password and user specific access rights. Companies make all kinds of investments to achieve process co-ordination. Purchasing systems are used to co-ordinate the purchasing process. Asset management systems are used to manage complex assets. E-mail is used to co-ordinate unstructured discussion.
But do any of these systems know what the entire corporation is doing and why it is doing it? Can these systems prevent goal
conflicts? Do any of these systems recognize problems and provide solutions?
KM systems and other enterprise applications clearly do not do this. (Otherwise no one would complain of over-information. – Note that people never feel that they personally know too much. They just think that other people are trying to give them too much information, which they could not possibly absorb.) Over information is the result of bad knowledge management. Television, enterprise information, the internet all give us over information Why do people not complain of this sort of over information in their own minds? Because the human mind manages information very well.
Why do we want our knowledge management systems or our enterprise applications or our e-mail to manage information? Shouldn’t we want our systems to co-ordinate the enterprise and make them act according to all its experience?
It would be correct to assume that all corporations want their key staff to notice important circumstances and know how these apply to the business. When one key staff member can be relied upon to notice, is the corporation satisfied? Shouldn’t more people notice?
How long does it take to train a senior corporate officer who can be relied upon to identify the corporation’s risk and opportunities in time to act? How many people need to feed this person with timely information through e-mails and meetings to make sure the right issues get attention? How much time do senior people spend reading things that are irrelevant and how often do they worry that they have not gone through enough (possibly useless ) information to be sure a major risk or opportunity is not being overlooked?