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Knowledge management is a bit of an oxymoron.

“Pssst! You wanna buy some KM?” The vendor representative whispered across the desk. One might think that KM is some kind of illegal drug–or else the secret to trouncing your competition. The rep smiled; he knew he’d gotten my attention.

This really happened. If I knew then what I know now, I should’ve taken the gentleman’s card and had our muscle Guido meet him in the parking lot. I’m not opposed to knowledge management (KM), just not very enthusiastic about it as a practical matter.

One of the oldest concepts in computing is the difference between data and information. I had this drilled into me by an IT professor who embodied the difference himself. In fact he taught knowledge, yet another step beyond data and information. Data is the stuff we collect by the terabyte. Every enterprise of a computing size and history will have vast quantities of data, much of it off-line. Most of it means little or nothing to anybody. To be useful it needs to be turned into information. Generally that implies organizing the data into reports or other presentations that provide a context. Information is generally more approachable for human beings than raw data, but it may or may not be useful. That’s where knowledge comes in–that’s what information becomes when it becomes useful and takes on practical value.

These “definitions” of data, information and knowledge are imprecise and debatable, of course. But the main idea is that for an organization to truly profit from all the computing activity the vast quantities of data need to be turned into information and better still into knowledge. It’s also not just a matter of dealing with digitally stored data. Most of the truly valuable knowledge in an organization is stored not in bytes but in brain cells. Adding employee knowledge to the mix of data and information is crucial.

All this is chapter and version for the burgeoning field of knowledge management. Link your databases, your stored documents, your employees knowledge and voila!–Knowledge Management happens. Of course this is cattle flop; even knowledge management gurus will admit that such simple linkages are A) not simple, and B) may produce no results whatsoever.

It’s not a stretch to say that KM is popular because big vendors like Oracle and Microsoft push it (they love to sell their database management products); and CIOs just know that there must be a better way to use all the expertise and information in an organization. Both of these are honorable and plausible impulses (more or less). The problem is that knowledge management is so much more complicated and subtle than any vendor and most CIOs can imagine.

One example of that complexity sticks in my mind: It was a couple of years ago. I was a member of a committee that had been charged with saving one of the company’s key products. Its sales were tanking and nobody seemed to know why. Of course we did our due diligence. We pulled together sales figures for 10 years and diced them 40 ways from Sunday. We interviewed managers from marketing, distribution, manufacturing, sales, et al. We hired a couple of consultants to review our marketing plans and a survey firm to probe our customers. What we got was not an answer but 20 suggestions for answers. What we hadn’t done is listen carefully to Herb.

Herbert, our VP of Finance, was an expert in banking and money management. This seemed about a galaxy away from our problems with a specific product, so when Herb first offered some opinions, nobody listened–I mean really listened.

To be continued next week…

Editor at Large Nelson King also writes Pursuits monthly for ComputerUser magazine.

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