The First Generation – What Went Wrong?
Computer support of knowledge activities is far from new. In the 1970s there was a proliferation of ‘expert systems’, and heightened interest in artificial intelligence. It was suggested that they might radically transform knowledge activities within firms. The reality, as we know in hindsight, is that they fell far short of expectations. They could handle only a narrow range of problems, they required extensive knowledge elicitation, and they failed to grasp the fundamental nature of human thought processes. This era is best characterized as the one where we tried to make computers think, rather than using computers to help humans think.
Today, after years of steady progress, artificial intelligence has evolved new techniques, such as neural networks and intelligent agents, and is being widely applied in a growing number of applications. Our research also found it is used to some degree in a significant proportion of the world-class knowledge management programs we investigated. The main hurdle affecting all applications of ICT to knowledge management is coping with the fundamental difference between explicit and tacit knowledge.
Whereas explicit knowledge is that which can be codified into documents, databases and other tangible forms, tacit knowledge is that in the heads of individuals. Ask a person to describe explicitly how to ride a bicycle and they cannot, yet they know how to. This distinction and the processes by which tacit knowledge is converted in to explicit knowledge and vice versa, is one of the central planks of Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995). Our research found it one of the most widely cited concepts by knowledge management practitioners, yet one that is often ignored by information systems professionals. There seems to be a Western tendency to capture knowledge by “getting it into a database”. Yet some of the most successful applications of ICT in knowledge management include those that help human-human communications, most notably groupware, and especially Lotus Notes.
The impact of each technology varies enormously from situation to situation. Several technologies recur in many knowledge management programs, partly because they are generic and pervade many core activities and processes. The main ones are now briefly reviewed.
The ubiquitous Internet protocols make it easy for users to access “any information, any where, at any time”. Further, browsers and client software can act as front-ends to information in many formats and many of the other knowledge tools such as document management or decision support. Remember too, that the basic functions of email, discussion lists and private newsgroups often have the biggest short term impact.
Booz Allen & Hamilton’s Knowledge Online is an Intranet that provides a wealth of information (e.g. best practice, industry trends, database of experts) to their consultants world-wide. Through active information management by knowledge editors (subject experts and librarians) the information remains well structured and relevant.
Groupware – Lotus Notes
What groupware products like Lotus Notes add over and above Intranets are discussion databases. Users such as Thomas Miller, a London based manager of insurance mutuals, access their ‘organizational memory’, as well as current news feeds in areas of interest, through one of Lotus’s key features, its multiple ‘views’. When writing new insurance proposals, existing explicit knowledge can be assembled from the archive, guided by expert systems front-end, while tacit knowledge is added through discussion databases.