I’ll Know It When I See It

I don’t understand knowledge management. Yes, it is among the things we cover, but I swear it is the one of the most elusive. While content may be reduced to something as ephemeral as zeros and ones or bits and bytes, knowledge is one of the ultimate intangibles. How do you capture it in the first place so that you can make it manageable? It’s like trying to catch air with a net.

As the chair of the 2008 Enterprise Search Summit, I’m privy to a sneak peak at the keynote. Martin White—longtime contributor to EContent magazine—includes an insight into search, based on an adage about knowing what we know and knowing what we don’t know. This is counterbalanced with: We don’t know what we know, and we don’t know what we don’t know. Producing the content for this show has been revelatory in more ways than just previewing the keynote. While I am new to this conference, this conference is not new. It was inaugurated and produced for years by Nancy Garman who, while she would never have called herself by this title, was a conference guru. When she gave me the reins, suffice it to say my hands shook.

Along with the reins, she handed off a nice bit of background information: sample correspondence, evaluation forms, and contacts. She has also been on tap for random comments and questions such as, "This speaker claims you always gave her extra passes," or "How come this speaker is quoting me four times what you paid him?" Once I delivered the advance program to the printer, things fell into a familiar routine of administration.

I now find myself a month out from the actual May event, and I’m starting the program for the September summit. Not surprisingly, I’m confronted with a fresh set of ambiguities. However, Nancy has fled the grid for exotic climes, having the gall to enjoy her retirement, leaving me wanting for a lot more than stamps on my passport. Thus, the process of piecing together the answer to a question our ex-resident guru could have answered in a few keystrokes took innumerable phone calls and emails, while ultimately the "answer" leaves me with a vague sense of uncertainty. One thing I know for sure is that this sort of human knowledge silo is not uncommon. Humans, even those who remain a resource once they’ve moved on, are unreliable repositories.

In theory, there should be knowledge redundancy, or at least a boss should know exactly what an employee does. Yet as a boss, I know that while I could step in and cover for team members, they each bring their own expertise, style, relationships, etc., to their jobs, which I cannot duplicate. I do hope to have some insight into their working knowledge and, when they go, I can get the job done.

Not through any sort of managerial divination, mind you; rather, because we use a wiki to maintain our editorial calendar, ideas, notes on writers, sources, and more. I would like to say that our wiki use represents some sort of KM thought leadership, but it arose through the use of a wiki for one project, which led to another. Now, a wiki serves as the hub for all activities undertaken by our group: EContent, our websites, the Intranets newsletter, the Enterprise Search Sourcebook, and now the Enterprise Search Summit.

Turns out, this sort of ripple effect may be the most effective way to introduce wikis into the enterprise, according to the report "Wiki in the Enterprise" published by Janus Boye and Dorthe R. Jespersen in April 2008. According to the report, starting with one small project can help ease comfort with, use of, and the eventual scaling of wiki use in the enterprise. I can attest to the fact that having our wiki be the locus for getting our work done makes it essential and builds comfort with it.

The report also discusses the labor intensiveness of many knowledge-sharing efforts. Often, a repository is conceived of by management as the construction of a profound knowledge legacy and feels like pyramid building to the knowledge serfs. Any system that requires employees to stop doing their actual work to contribute to a knowledge collection box is not going to be well-received. According to the report, employees "need to see the added value of their efforts; in other words, the wiki should fulfill a defined need."

It also points out that wikis can be a useful tool to encourage knowledge sharing and to get staff to write things down, making them findable by others even after the author has left the organization. Though it does add the caveat, "The promise of externalising knowledge in a usable form is reminiscent of promises made by knowledge management systems."

So, while our Enterprise Group Editorial Wiki may not prove to be the pinnacle of knowledge management, I do know that it has gotten us to share more information in a way that may be useful to others who seek it in the future.