Newsletter of the Association of Library and Information Science Students (ALISS)




 title of the newsletter: The Silverfish


January 2004

Vol VIII Issue I

ischool logo
Information School
University of Washington
About the Silverfish
Editorial Board
Submission Guidelines
Current Issue


Next article >>

A Brief Intro to Knowledge Management

By Dyan Smith Chandler
This fall I had the pleasure of taking Jeff Kim’s Knowledge Management class, LIS 584. Each class session was thought-provoking and filled with lively discussion. I learned a lot, and for this month’s issue I’d like to share some of what I took away from the course.

Throughout the quarter, we grappled with some big questions about Knowledge Management. The following is a brief sampling of these questions – and attempts at answers – that came up this past quarter. If you’d like to know more, sign up for LIS 584 the next time it is offered!

What exactly is Knowledge Management?
Without delving into the philosophical differences between knowledge, information, and data (you’ll have to take the class for that answer!), I will attempt to offer up a definition: simply put, it is about “knowing what we know”. Knowledge Management represents the efforts and practices undertaken by an organization to value, identify, and re-use what it and its members collectively know. Within an organizational context, knowledge exists not only as sets of files and documents, but also as routines and procedures carried out by an organization’s members. It is the combination of these elements – the intangible processes and practices and the tangible documents and repositories – that embody the field of Knowledge Management.

Why all the hype about Knowledge Management?
While there is certainly nothing new about valuing knowledge, the focus on knowledge as a tangible and quantifiable asset is relatively recent in organizational practice. Once taken for granted, knowledge is now seen as a significant corporate asset to be managed, measured, and accounted for financially.

One short answer for why we are all of a sudden seeing Knowledge Management in the limelight is that we are living in the age of information technology. We now have robust tools that enable us to manage our knowledge in a formalized way. Since we have the necessary tools, incorporating Knowledge Management into our everyday organizational practices could be seen as a logical progression.

Is technology the answer to Knowledge Management?
Given the key role technology has played in bringing Knowledge Management to our attention, it might seem that technology is the logical solution for taming the knowledge beast. After all, paying trained professionals to manage organizational knowledge by hand can be hugely expensive, not to mention time-consuming.

As you may have guessed, it is not that simple. It’s true, there are lots of slick software packages on the market today making big promises of “automation”, which in turn equates to time and money for an organization. But in reality, it is not possible to fully automate the intellectual component essential for managing knowledge in a way that it is useful and meaningful for people. And after all, what good does allof this knowledge do us if we can’t find, use, and re-use it?

Even in organizations that claim to employ “automation”, it is likely that Knowledge Management functions are actually being carried out by a combination of machine and human effort. This means that people are not being replaced by computers; rather, people are learning how to teach computers to perform increasingly complex tasks.

Why should we be interested in Knowledge Management at the Information School?
Assuming we must keep human beings in the Knowledge Management picture, the question then becomes – Who should these human beings be? Which profession is best suited to take on the Knowledge Management charge?

You guessed it! Enter the library and information professionals. We have the intuition and skills needed to most effectively form bridges between individual information needs and the world of human knowledge. We are therefore the people best suited to fill Knowledge Management roles in organizations.

But beware. What may seem straightforward to us might not be so clear for other parts of our organization. We must make an effort to stake this claim. We must advocate our strengths, and be willing to apply traditional theories to new and emerging technologies. We must learn to over-communicate what to us may seem obvious – that it takes great skill and insight to manage information, and that information only has value to a user when it is relevant. That is not to say that we should not openly collaborate with our colleagues in management, computer science, and other departments. But when it comes to issues of how to connect users with information, and how to wrangle the vast and sometimes unruly universe of “knowledge”, we should claim ownership of the domain.