Wednesday Nov 12, 2008

The evolution of knowledge management: lessons learned

It's been a while since we've talked about knowledge management (KM) - and there have been two recent comments on the last posting, so let's revisit the topic.

We've had the opportunity a couple of times in the last few months to talk about KM to different outside audiences. In September, I had the chance to talk with some library and information science students at the University of Denver about KM, and specifically KM at Sun. Then, at the end of October, I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in a site visit from APQC, along with Terry McKenzie and Peter Reiser, to talk about Sun and social networking and expertise location - yet another opportunity to essentially talk about KM.

A common theme between these two presentations has been the lessons learned - probably more accurately, the lessons we keep re-learning. Here are some of the thoughts we shared with them:

We, as information professionals, need to continue to think differently and flexibly about information management, knowledge management, expertise - and what we bring to the conversation. What do we bring to the conversation? A couple of things:

  • A broad, 'big picture' perspective. We bring this perspective in two ways. Since we provide information resources and consulting across the entire organization, we are able to have a 'pulse' on the company. Because we get requests from all over Sun, we have a sense of what the company is thinking and what the important initiatives are at any given point. The way this ties into expertise location and knowledge sharing is that we have the ability to connect individuals or groups in the company who are working on similar initiatives. The individuals or groups might not have known that others in the company were working on similar issues, and we are often able to bring them together for more productive and complete work.

    The other broad perspective we bring is from the information industry as a whole. Because we're keeping track of what's going on in the information industry outside of Sun, we can bring those trends to bear within the company where appropriate. Because we often have the opportunity to benchmark with information professionals in other organizations, we can make sure we're staying on top of things in relation to other top companies in the world.

  • The ability to identify and locate key authoritative content. This is a reason why many folks within Sun turn to us when they need authoritative and business-critical content. Sure, it's easy enough to do a Google search to find information. Often, you can find the information you need that's 'good enough'. But what if you need the REALLY good stuff? The stuff you simply can't find on the open web? What if you don't know if the information you've found is authoritative? That's where we come in. If we have it, we'll get it to you. If you don't know what the 'good stuff' is, we can help identify it for you. (In fact, for a while we used the phrase 'we've got the good stuff' in our internal presentations.)

What are our other lessons learned?

Start small and move forward from there. As I specifically told the student group at DU, the word 'pilot' is your friend. Pilots are relatively benign. If a pilot fails, it's just that - a pilot that failed. It's not a failed project, it's not a smudge on your reputation - in fact, you get a gold star almost any way you look at it, because you're trying out new things! Good for you!

In doing pilots and 'starting small', it's important, if possible, to work with existing pain points and needs. There is so much opportunity in working with existing pain points, for a number of reasons. One, usually almost anything you can do is better than what currently exists. Two, when people are in pain, they are much more willing to be flexible, try new solutions and buy into your solution. Three, if you solve it, even a little bit - well, you're a hero again, and you have the opportunity to add that win to your portfolio of wins, and to potentially have a new group advocating for you in the company as well. How can you stand being so good?

Partnering and connecting – in every sense – is essential for success. Because KM is so bound up with social networking and 2.0 tools today, KM projects are inherently social in nature. They need people and groups to interact. What you're building is essentially a social system, based around information. So, it's important to build your connections and to get buy-in.

The recent Sun author chats in Second Life are a great example of this. We work with the SMI Press authors, the SMI press team and others to create these very popular events. There is no way we could do this effectively on our own. It is our partnerships that allow these events to be effective and valuable.

Additionally, because KM solutions will have some piece of technology associated with them, the IT department - or at least people who have IT skills - really become important colleagues and partners. Foster these connections - a good IT person on your side, as you likely know, is a wonderful thing.

Last, continue to experiment with new tools and stay on top of technology trends – this whole space is still evolving quickly. Emphasis here is on trends. That means, thankfully, you don't have to feel compelled to check out every single new tool and beta version of the latest social networking software that comes out. Do, however, keep an eye and an ear out for what the latest buzz is, and pay particular attention to those things that continue to come to your attention. To use an older example, at one point we kept hearing about Twitter. Several different colleagues, internally and externally to Sun, were mentioning it, and we'd seen it discussed on a couple of aliases. Well, we figured that maybe it was time to check it out, to see what it was all about, and to start thinking about how we might be able to use it. The result: the birth of our libraryresearch Twitter.  

To wrap up, here's an incident that really struck me lately about how far Sun has come in its evolution and use of social networking and 2.0 tools. I was talking with someone in a government setting recently about social networking tools and showing them some of the Sun tools available on the open web. We logged on to All of a sudden, he jumped up for a closer look and got really excited about it. He was pointing to the 'Popular Blogs' section of, the part that tells you which blogs have the most number of hits for the day.

I'm paraphrasing badly, but he said something along the lines of 'that's your expertise! Those are your go-to people in the organization!'

I looked at it more closely and I realized he was right. I remember when Jonathan's blog was regularly and reliably the number one blog. Nowadays, he's typically in the top five, but he's no longer consistently number one. Instead, Jim Grisanzio, Simon Phipps, Bryan Cantrill and Geertjan Wielenga are often holding the top spots, along with many other Sun experts.

His excitement gave me a renewed appreciation for - a tool that had previously felt old to me, but suddenly felt new and really exciting. In fact, it suddenly felt like a tool that had added value, because it has some history to it. Though it's a relatively 'new' tool, it has become firmly embedded in Sun's culture. At least over 4000 Sun bloggers feel that way.

I also felt a renewed appreciation for Sun's commitment to social networking tools. It's interesting to reflect on the evolution of the use of these tools in Sun, from blogs to wikis to the use of Facebook for Sun groups, to leading edge tools like SunSpace and Sun Learning eXchange. Sun has always been a leading-edge adopter in many ways, and its adoption of social networking tools is no exception.

Where will the future take us? What are the next steps? Stay tuned...

Scott Brown, Sr. Information Specialist

Thursday Jun 12, 2008

Role of Information Management in Social Media

So let's run through a few additional considerations as social networking and other 2.0 tools take off. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but just some of the effects as more and more people adopt these tools.  

“Ultra-customization”: If everyone has just the information they want - through RSS feeds, widgets, page customization, etc. - how do you get important information to everyone? How do you get everyone on the same page?

On a broad basis, this ties into the authority discussion. For organizations, this becomes a real challenge. Many organizations, Sun included, often have a "required" channel on an internal web page that can be customized - so everyone looks at the same thing. But how do you reach someone who doesn't look at that web page, ever - who gets their information primarily through another landing page, RSS feeds, etc.? Interestingly enough, often times the solution is sending an all-company email - reverting back to "old" technology. (Now, whether that actually reaches folks who email inbox is in the thousands of messages is another question.)

The point here is that organizations are already dealing with these kinds of issues. As customization becomes more and more prevelant, creating consistency for business needs is going to become an even more complex issue to address. When one is simply customizing information for one's personal use, this is a non-issue. Within an organization, it becomes a tension between what should I be looking at vs. what do I want to be looking at.

Increasing available knowledge does not mean people are going to use it - otherwise known as information overload. As we all know, there is more and more information being produced, and at an increasing rate. Thanks to tools like wikis, blogs, and social networks, everyone - anyone - now has the ability to create content and make it available on the open Web. This is a great democratizer of the Internet, as it allows everyone a "voice", so to speak.

But do concepts of democracy apply to information? Is all information created equal? Is all information equally useful, or are we littering up the Internet with a bunch of low-level information?

A specific example is what I call “wiki information death”. Wikis have become a very popular tool for creating and sharing content, which is wonderful. To me, it feels very much like the mid- to late-90s, when everyone was creating a web page on the Internet. Remember when you'd come across pages called things like "Bert's page" with horrible flashing graphics? To a large extent, we're seeing that phenomenon again today, with wikis (for groups), blogs (for individuals), and MySpace and Facebook pages (for both). True, most of the time the horrible graphics are gone (with the exception of MySpace).

The bottom line is that folks are putting up a lot of information - and a large percentage of that information is never going to be updated again. The person or group loses interest, there's nothing new to add, it was only an experiment in the first place - for whatever reason(s), this "information" is being put out there and then being essentially abandoned.

Undoubtedly you could derive a sense of what Internet users are thinking at a broad level, through mining all of the information available, useful or not. I'm sure there are many information discoveries to be made there, discoveries that I can't comprehend. But I can't help but think that a lot of "information" is actually just cluttering up the place.

Same content in multiple places. Weren't we just solving this problem with content management systems? With wikis in particular, you have the responsibility of keeping track of - and managing, and updating - your own content in your head. Yes, there is some hierarchy there, but wikis are pretty flat. Additionally, since you potentially have multiple people adding content, how do you prevent duplication?

You see the complications. I'm not arguing that social networking tools don't bring a lot of value - they do. As I've mentioned earlier, these tools are delivering the promise of KM. But they also bring complications that need to be addressed. They affect the answer to the question: What does one year, three years, five years from now look like for information, KM and IM?

Can we foresee and address all the gaps and needs areas we know about? No, not all at once, certainly. So let's look at what's important, right here and now. What can we do today to help address some of these issues?
Maintenance - or maybe I should say, dedication and responsibility. It's really easy to start a blog, wiki, or network. What's hard is putting the time into it: creating entries, blogging regularly, building a community around a wiki, keeping a network alive. In an ideal world, a network doesn't necessarily need a "leader". In reality, the network is made up of the people in that network, and some people will naturally emerge as leaders. Those that have a passion around the topic will help drive it. Be aware of the need to "feed and care for" your social networking tool, and be ready to dedicate the time to maintain it so it remains usable and valuable.

Related to this is managing the information lifecycle - particularly maintenance and the end of the cycle. Librarians have been concerned - and rightly so - with preserving and archiving information since the beginning of libraries. This still is an important function. Often, the "library" is the final destination for information that has become outdated or is no longer needed - until someone really needs it again. That's one of the instances where the library becomes the lifesaver.

But archiving and preservation can't be indiscriminate. With all the potential "information litter" around, it becomes more important than ever to be able to get rid of information.

I can hear a gasp from some of you - "get rid of information???" On the face of things, this goes against our sensibilities. What if you need that information later? Of course, you need to follow your legal guidelines and records retention rules. What I'm suggesting is that we need to be more decisive and active in scoping what information we should keep, and be willing to take action in actually getting rid of information. Of course I'm not talking about getting rid of the Constitution - but think about whether you really need that old project wiki, with all the detail around the meeting notes, etc. Necessary? It might feel like it today. Review your old information regularly and get rid of what's lost its relevance.

Flexibility, and a willingness to let go. An example of this that I absolutely love is Marcy Phelps' Power Networking for Introverts blog. Marcy started this blog in 2007 - and then she ended it in April of this year. Here's an excerpt from her last entry:

I started blogging about networking because it interested me. I built my business by networking, and I learned a lot along the way. But it takes a lot of reading to keep up with a topic in order to write and speak about it - especially one that is not exactly your specialty.

I love this. To me, this exemplifies information creation and sharing at its best. Marcy started because she had a passion around the topic. She stopped because, well, in my view, her passion and life priorities shifted. She left behind a great source of information - but she doesn't feel compelled to keep it going if she can't dedicate the time to it. So she let it go.

Dedication, responsibility, lifecycle management, and letting go - to me, all encapsulated in this blog and in this information practitioner.

Management of information - knowledge management, information management, content management, search,
discovery, social media, metadata - is only going to become more critical moving forward. We'll continue to explore how information management is changing and evolving, and how we can change and evolve along with it. 

Tuesday May 27, 2008

Knowledge and authority

Earlier this year I attended an event sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Chapter of SLA. The speaker was Karl Fisch, who created the "Did You Know?" video, something you've probably seen, at least in part. Karl used the video and the statistics contained within it to help his faculty understand what students are going to need to be successful in the 21st century.

In any case, at the presentation, Karl mentioned that he was floored when he recently saw a newspaper piece that cited Wikipedia as a source.

For anyone familiar with Wikipedia, this should floor you, too, since you know that anyone can potentially add anything - anonymously - to Wikipedia.

This is an issue of basic information literacy, something most librarians are quite familiar with. (Thomson Reuters has a good page on the basics of determining web site authority.) Social networking adds a new spin on it. So, for this example, how do you determine authority in Wikipedia - where there is no identified author or authority?

Well, essentially, you don't. Wikipedia can be a great starting point for getting oriented quickly to a topic. Would I ever quote it directly? Probably not. When we're doing training in this area, we point people to the links off of the Wikipedia entry - that's where you're going to find the sites where you can dig into authority.

Let's take, for example, Digital Divide. Wikipedia is actually quite good on this; the page has sections on origins of the term, digital divide and education, global digital divide and overcoming the digital divide. Now, a couple of things. Take the statement, "European Union study from 2005 conduc(t)ed in 14 European countries and focused on the issue of digital divide found that within the EU, the digital divide is primarily a matter of age and education."

Digital divide wikipedia

Would you take that as a quote and put it in a presentation? Well, you could, but probably best to try to chase this back to the source. This piece of the Wikipedia entry is good, because it footnotes the EU study and provides a link to the source study.

EU example
Note, though, when I viewed this entry, that link to the EU study is broken. To do my due diligence, I should do a Google (or Eurostat) search, and then I'll find the newsletter source. Now, is this a reliable and credible source? You bet.

The other great thing about a good Wikipedia entry that helps you with finding authoritative information is an "External links" section. Here's where you can really start to pursue your information search. Again, be sure to use caution - just because a link is included here doesn't mean it's necessarily credible. And, there may be additional authoritative resources not included that you should seek out. Use these external links and citations to continue your search.


So what does this little tangent have to do with KM, IM and CM? We hope to illustrate simply that the issues and challenges around KM, IM and CM become more complicated with social networking tools, primarily because they blur the boundaries around knowledge and information. Is a Wikipedia entry a "valid" piece of information? What if you have a wiki page behind your firewall, that has only been created by your organization - is that  a more "valid" piece of knowledge? Does the value and validity of the content of a wiki change depending upon its context?

How do social networking tools, and the information contained therein, affect your view of your corporate knowledge?

How will we ever deal with all of this?

Before we plunge into despair, let's look at some other challenges posed by social networking tools...

Monday May 19, 2008

Defining knowledge management

In the previous entry, we looked at the resurgence of interest in knowledge management (KM) and how social networking tools such as wikis and blogs are driving this resurgence. In this entry, we'll start to dive into the stickier questions, such as: What is knowledge? What do we include as 'knowledge' to be managed? What's the difference between knowledge management (KM), information management (IM), and content management (CM) - especially when so many folks are using these (or at least thinking about these) interchangeably?

First, let's settle on some definitions of what we're talking about. The Ark Group published a recent report that defines KM as 'a discipline and technology enabling people to share their knowledge through agreed-upon processes for identifying, capturing, storing, retrieving, creating and evaluating an organisation’s information assets'.

Fair enough. Depending upon the context (and whom I'm trying to sell the concept to), I would emphasize different parts of this statement. Here, I would emphasize 'an organisation's information assets'. Broadly defined, this could encompass ANYTHING that could possibly be considered 'information' within an organisation: internally-generated information, any information the organisation has purchased, intellectual property, any little piece of information that might come from anyone's head. For our purposes here, let's stick with internally-generated information: information that has been created by the organization. This is still a huge universe of information - but at least we're not including all the information created outside of the walls of the organisation.

Outsell, an outstanding firm which covers the information industry and trends in the industry, sees KM as a component of IM (and acknowledges that IM and KM are often used interchangably in discussion and in the literature). Forrester, a top IT market research firm, addresses the area as Information & Knowledge Management (I&KM), which seems to cover everything pretty well.

Digital Libraries & Research (DL&R) provides IM services for Sun. For DL&R, some of these functions include managing and facilitating access to external content (hey! That's content management or CM), creating and managing web sites, providing information training, and providing research and information consulting services.

OK, so we've got our terminology sorted to some extent. Now let's go back to KM. Where DL&R doesn't have much current investment is in the KM realm, if we're talking strictly about internal information. We do have a high knowledge of internal information at Sun. We don't currently take a formal role in providing high-level strategy and management of that information.

Theoretically, we could dive head-long into the KM realm, spread our arms wide, and declare, 'Yes! We are ready to take over KM at Sun! Whatever that means!'

But what would that mean? You talk to some people and they bring up things like expert databases. Others talk about intellectual property. Others mention content management, or records management, or business intelligence, or information architecture or taxonomy or tagging or oral histories or...

You get the picture. What is it exactly that we're talking about, when we talk about KM?

The good news is that, when you talk about KM in the organisation, the scope is ultimately defined by the organisation. Inevitably, I believe that the introduction of social networking tools in your organisation will open up the discussion around KM at some point.

Why is this a good thing? You, as the information specialist, can play a role in influencing and defining (or redefining) what that scope is. The opportunity may be there for you to take a role in connecting with your stakeholders and asking them what they think KM is and what they would include in a KM strategy in your organisation. Are we talking about capturing every single piece of information captured on a wiki? Is there a pressing need to find experts in the company? Is there an opportunity to solve a long-term problem with a new social networking tool? Even better - is there a particular group, project, or set of information that is just crying out for your help?

The best business case for driving KM in your organisation could be a well-timed, smaller-scope project that can illustrate the benefits of good knowledge management. You never know what visibility - and resources - could result from applying your skill sets to a key collection of internal information.

So - start the conversation. Show your expertise. Most importantly, engage your stakeholders. Information - reliable, authoritative, spot-on information - isn't always getting easier to find, it's getting harder. For you information specialists and librarians out there who already do KM, this is nothing new to you. For those of you looking at this topic again, this may be a time of great opportunity for you to influence your organisation. Undoubtedly you'll hear more from us as we pursue this further within Sun.

Next entry, we'll look at little bit into some of the challenges that are already arising with these tools, and what additional challenges may be ahead.

Monday May 12, 2008

Re-examining knowledge management

Knowledge management - KM - is experiencing a resurgence of interest here at Sun, at least a resurgence of buzz. We had this interest and buzz back in the late 90s and early 2000s, but most of that buzz died away over a few years.

But now, KM seems to be back! Why is that?

Much of KM the first time around was about capturing 'tacit' knowledge - the knowledge that essentially never gets published. The processes and information floating around in peoples' heads. In the enterprise, that meant capturing the company knowledge and making it available.

Part of what's driving the KM discussion this time is all the social networking tools available today. Blogs, wikis, networking tools like LinkedIn and Facebook and more are now actually capturing that tacit knowledge. Today, people and groups have ways to easily record their output and to record all that stuff floating around in their heads. In many instances, it's easier to find people now more than ever, so you can quickly find and connect with experts. Communities and networks spring up around anything and everything. All this is exactly what KM was trying to accomplish the first time around - but it was usually too hard to participate back then. Social media tools have become an important part of KM and are driving interest in KM again.

But - social media tools both enhance and complicate the KM picture. Yes, they are capturing a lot of this knowledge. But at the same time, they're adding yet another layer of information to the already enormous information universe. True, the technology to find information is getting better, our ability to store information is getting greater, and the computing power to search larger and larger pools of information is continually growing. But as the universe of information grows larger, the opportunities and challenges of finding the information one is seeking grow larger as well.

Over the next few entries, I'll be exploring topics such as:

  • What is knowledge? What do we include as 'knowledge'?

  • What's the difference between knowledge management (KM), information management (IM), content management (CM) - especially when so many folks are using these (or at least thinking about these) interchangeably?

  • How does one determine authority in a social setting? What's right? What's accurate?

  • If everyone has just the information they want, how do you get important information to everyone? How do you get everyone on the same page?

  • What does one year, three years, five years from now look like for information, KM and IM?
We don't have any ready answers for these questions. But we'll be sharing with you a little about what we're thinking around these areas, and what some possible next steps might look like.

Scott Brown, Sr. Information Specialist


Sharing stories of information management, collaboration, integration, sharing, and social enterprise applications for corporate information services.


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