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The Silverfish is published monthly by the students of the Information School at the University of Washington.

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On Humanity and Knowledge Management
By Aaron Louie
October 25, 2002

All the information technology, corporate strategizing, and technological forecasting can never change the fact that we are human. We have beliefs, feelings, intuitions, and values -- and continue to hold to these no matter how irrational or dangerous they may be. Is there room in Knowledge Management (KM) for the daily struggles of the human condition? Can we, as information professionals, design systems that mold to this constantly erupting landscape of emotion?

The purpose of KM is to improve knowledge sharing in an organization, but the processes that govern information flow in any organization are not solely dependent on the decrees of management. There are also the daily thoughts, beliefs, and concerns of the individual people who share information. No computer, no system can plumb the depths of the human soul to capture it in a database. A person must be willing to share their knowledge, and this willingness is a product of trust, values, and emotions.

It is this challenge that Knowledge Management now faces. We must first recognize that organizations are made up of people bound together by tasks, policies, and, most importantly, mutual benefit. Because people are likely to act in their own self interests, any member of the organization will leave in the absence of an incentive. This incentive is a complex combination of social, physical, economic, spiritual, emotional, and many other factors. This ecosystem is the habitat in which knowledge lives in an organization.

In order to gain access to that knowledge, the information systems we build must mimic the natural ways in which people share information. This can only be done by (a) analyzing and creating a model of the interactions in the organization and (b) designing information systems based on that model that affords for the natural processes of the organization in vivo.

However, it is not enough to simply model a system and mimic its behavior. The way that the information system is implemented is far more crucial to the success of the KM initiative. It must be designed and implemented in such a way that respects the needs and desires of the people who make up the organization. Regardless of how individually beneficial the information system may be, people will not accept a change that they have no power in choosing. Again, the human characteristics of trust, values, and emotions play a pivotal role in Knowledge Management.

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