What you need to know about Knowledge Management (Pt. 2)

Arrows and blocks
I want to focus on knowledge capturing in this post. It’s often overlooked as ‘self-evident’: something that doesn’t need further discussion. “We create documents and save them in a document library.”

Of course, capturing information is about so much more than that. First off, I think it’s worthwhile setting up a simple conceptual framework of the types of information that are generated and captured using computers. I think these fall into two principal categories:

  1. Unstructured information is document based, and the documents are typically free-form. This doesn’t mean they have no internal structure – most documents have a table of contents, section headings, etc. – but that readily available technology today can’t (yet) meaningfully extract that information (at least most of the time). In unstructured information, therefore, the document is the ‘container’ (the object we can work with) while its contents can be a bit of a mystery. We can use technologies like full-text search to access what’s inside; more about that a little later.
  2. Structured information is data-driven, highly structured information. Typically, this resides in a database (it could also live in an XML document, for example). The defining factor in structured information is that each piece of information is individually labeled and that the pieces are somehow put in relation to one another (i.e. related items can be grouped, searched, compared, analyzed). Examples of structured information are customer databases or business forms.

I think there’s also a hybrid between these two core forms of information. Increasingly, users and systems have started to use structured information to describe unstructured information and, in so doing, increased its discoverability and value. This is known as ‘metadata,’ data that describes data. In most typical database-driven document management systems (including SharePoint), metadata is always available in conjunction with the ability to store unstructured documents. Let’s call this type of information ‘hybrid information.’

Another example of hybrid information is the increasing number of blogs and wikis used in enterprises. They’re hybrid information because blogs can be highly structured (in my blog, you can navigate to individual posts in a variety of ways) yet the individual blog entries are still free-form and their content is best accessed using search (or you have to actually read them to find out what they’re about!).

Now that I’ve equipped you with a home-made framework that you can use to think about different types of information in your organization, let’s map out the kinds of tools that users might use to create and capture each kind of information:

  • Unstructured information: word processors such as Microsoft Office Word, spreadsheets, presentations, text files, HTML files, Adobe Acrobat files, images, faxes, scanned documents etc. Basically, documents in all their different forms.
  • Structured information: databases, knowledge bases, spreadsheets (yes, I know these appear in both categories), comma-delimited text files, SharePoint lists. Databases – flat or relational – in all their different forms.
  • Hybrid information: documents in metadata-enabled document libraries, wikis, blogs, knowledge bases that contain narratives or customer histories, records repositories.

A simple but effective exercise to go through in your organization is to build some kind of inventory of the kinds of information you are capturing and storing, and grouping it by using these three categories. This will result in a much clearer understanding of what your users are doing, and why. Here are some questions you could ask yourself once you have that inventory:

  1. If your users are capturing most of their information in unstructured formats, does that mean their work is truly unique every time, or does it mean that you could better support them by providing them with better tools to capture and use structured information? Do these users have to frequently re-use this unstructured information? Is copy and paste good enough for that purpose?
  2. If your users are capturing structured information but are still spending a lot of their time creating unstructured documents, are you providing them with the right tools for their job? Would they perhaps benefit from newer, more up-to-date tools, such as wikis and blogs? Or a knowledge base that allows them to capture customer narratives?
  3. If the majority of your organization’s information is captured in unstructured format, do you have a good enterprise search strategy to help your users easily and quickly find the information they’re looking for?

These questions are just some examples of the kinds of things you might want to think about once you have an information inventory of your organization.

Let’s turn our attention to information worker productivity for a moment. Of course, providing the right tools to the right people at the right time should always be the #1 objective of an IT department (or a smart CIO). I would say that you should apply the principle of buying the best tools you can afford.

Continually upgrading to the latest, best tools is also a good idea. My recommendation is based on the assumption that information worker tools are, in fact, getting better over time. I know this isn’t necessarily a view shared by most CIOs or IT managers, but I think that fundamentally, having the latest web browsers, version of Microsoft Office, email client, etc. is a basic, empowering requirement for any information worker worth their salt (and salary).

Particularly if those information workers are called upon to creatively solve problems and independently generate great documents and communications, it’s a must. (If, on the other hand, your information workers spend a lot of their day creating and capturing structured data – like in a technical support call centre – it may be reasonable to assume that they don’t need the latest and greatest version of Microsoft Office. But even that could be a fallacy: it’s worth investigating how, exactly, your call centre agents’ days are spent.)

Having older, not-quite up-to-date information workers tools is easily comparable to a roofer or bricklayer not having a quality set of tools. People who work with tools (of the physical type) every day recognize the need for high-quality, up-to-date tools. Information workers should be no different. To encourage the highest productivity, the best tools are required.

Of course, information worker productivity isn’t all in the tools. Much of it has to do with other factors, such as:

  • The quality and transparency of the business processes used
  • The willingness of an organization’s employees to capture information for re-use (in other words, the cultural realization that capturing information makes information work better for everyone, over time)
  • The KM culture of an organization, and its level of maturity in recognizing and measuring the business value of information.

Back to the capturing of information, though. I think there are three perspectives to take on information capture to create knowledge value. These are:

  1. The principle of capture: why?
  2. The practice of capture: how?
  3. The measurement of capture: how much & how well?

We’ll examine each of these in more detail in the next post in this series. As always, your feedback – in comments or email – is very welcome.

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