Information Today
Volume 18, Issue 11 — December 2001
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IT Report from the Field
KMWorld 2001 Conference
This annual knowledge management event drew an enthusiastic, motivated crowd
by John Eichorn

I'd read all the reports about half-full airliners following the September 11 attacks. So I was somewhat selfishly hoping that my flight from Philadelphia to San Francisco for the KMWorld conference in Santa Clara, California, would be somewhat empty. No dice. I and seven of my colleagues from Information Today, Inc. (ITI) were crammed into that US Airways jet like sardines. Only one of us—and I won't name that particular CTO/Webmaster—was fortunate enough to have an empty seat next to him.

The Conference
As might be expected in this uncertain time, conference attendance was down somewhat from last year. Other information industry events have also taken it on the chin recently, so the decline wasn't unexpected. As a goodwill gesture to all of those who attended this year, ITI president and conference organizer Tom Hogan offered a 50-percent discount to KMWorld 2002, which will be held again at the Santa Clara Convention Center next fall. Hogan didn't fault those who cancelled and applauded the "human spirit" of those who did come.

Prior to the first day's opening keynote, U2's new album, "All That You Can't Leave Behind," played in the background. A great, hip touch, I thought, as attendees took their seats in the convention center's state-of-the-art theater. (Music played prior to the following days' keynotes as well.) Despite knowing there weren't as many folks this year, the auditorium certainly looked full for each of the keynote speeches.

For me, the highlight of this show was the keynoters. They were great, especially day-one speaker Carla O'Dell, president of the American Productivity & Quality Center and co-author of If We Only Knew What We Know: The Transfer of Internal Knowledge & Best Practices, and day-two speaker David Snowden, director of IBM's Institute for Knowledge Management. Both were just what every conference should have: dynamic, compelling presenters who draw the audience in and make them unaware that time is passing.

O'Dell's speech, "Successfully Implementing Knowledge Management: Best Practices and Lessons Learned," kicked things off by offering suggestions to organizations for moving forward in any KM journey. To illustrate how the importance of KM has grown in just the past 6 years, O'Dell asked the audience to raise their hands if they'd attended their first KM-related conference in 1995, '96, '97, etc. Not surprisingly, most of the hands went up when she asked if this was their first KM conference, which seemed to indicate that KM is more of a concern now than ever before.

O'Dell also discussed the differences between tacit and explicit knowledge. As she explained it, tacit knowledge can be compared to a salesperson being able to close a sale but not being able to write down all the details. Explicit knowledge on the other hand is when that knowledge can be written down and used by others. She also spoke of early KM adopters and how they've progressed, the communities of practice (CoPs) that are driving KM now, the five steps of the "roadmap to KM," and, finally, lessons learned. Referring to the latter, she said one of the most important things to remember is that your organization's culture won't change, "so get over it"—culture change is a result of knowledge sharing, not an antecedent. Therefore, KM should be designed around your culture and shared with others. "Except for a few sociopaths," O'Dell joked, "people rarely hoard knowledge."

The Cellphone Issue
To digress for a moment, perhaps the show's only drawback was the cellphones that continued to ring no matter how many times the speakers and moderators asked folks to turn them off. (Don't get me wrong, I find mine invaluable and don't get irritated when they ring in most public places. I do draw the line in theaters of any type, though.) Program chair Jane Dysart made it a point each morning, before the keynoter went on, to request that all phones be turned off. Did it work? Apparently not. While most attendees complied, there were several who didn't. One phone rang not just once but three times during the day-two keynote. Each time, Snowden wittily incorporated a joke about the ringing phone into his talk, drawing laughs from the crowd. After the third ring and subsequent quip, however, he warned, "That's the last time I'm going to be polite." In another session, Stephen Abram, the moderator and IHS Micromedia vice president, said, tongue in cheek, "Unless you're in DEFCON 4, your cellphone should be off."

KMWorld Awards
Before the day-two keynote, Hugh McKellar, KMWorld magazine's editor and resident funnyman, presented the first KMWorld Awards, one of which was for "KM Reality" and the other for "KM Promise." The 2001 KM Reality Award was presented to the Veterans Health Administration's Office of Special Projects. According to McKellar—who, in a mellow, California kind of mood, announced that he'd be replacing keynoter Snowden with his own 45-minute discussion on aromatherapy, much to the audience's amusement—the KM Reality Award is intended to "honor an organization that demonstrates leadership in the implementation of knowledge management practices and processes by realizing measurable benefits." The 2001 KM Promise Award—given to "a company that delivered on the promise of providing truly innovative technology solutions for implementing and integrating KM practices into the business process"—was presented to TheBrain and its Enterprise Knowledge Platform, which links disparate data sources into a collaborative workspace and uses a model that reflects the relationship between people, processes, and information.

The Exhibits
There were nearly 60 exhibitors at this year's KMWorld, and they ran the gamut of knowledge management companies. During my many passes through the exhibit hall, most of the booths were bustling with enthusiastic, involved attendees. Also hopping were the 21 exhibit hall presentations, which were spread over the course of 2 days. Needless to say, the first evening's exhibit hall reception was also a big hit, and the beer was an excellent surprise, especially for those of us who aren't oenophiles. Not to fear, there was of course plenty of wine and, for that matter, cheese, veggies, and hors d'oeuvres, as well. (For more on libations in conference halls, see Donald T. Hawkins' report from the Frankfurt Book Fair on p. 54.)

It's About the People
When asked about his impressions on the show, McKellar said: "Many of the conference sessions warned against technology being the only solution to knowledge management. And indeed, we've seen many KM implementations fall short in the past because of failing to acknowledge the human component in business and work processes. But as the vendors on the show floor demonstrated, knowledge management is ultimately about people. The exhibitors' offerings were increasingly designed to facilitate knowledge exchange between an organization's most valuable asset: its people."

Abram added: "The conference reflected what's happening in the KM sphere. There was lots more overlap between the discussions of knowledge management, content management, and e-learning. Indeed, we seem to have moved from a focus on technological convergence to one where the focus is on work flow and the role of human intellectual capital in that process. In some ways I can see the program being a leading indicator as it adapted to this change. The exhibit hall was cool, but you did get the feeling that many of these great applications would be merging with each other soon and that the trade show would start to feature more content and HR-oriented vendors.

"The conference also reflected a new focus on the tools and their usability," he continued. "This was mainly reflected in the focus on the design of the tools and the implementation of KM applications. It was interesting to see the new respect for enterprise culture as both a barrier and critical success factor in KM."

Understandably, the events of the past few months have weighed heavily on everyone. Though conference participants were for the most part engaged and enjoying themselves, I got the impression that folks weren't as lighthearted as at past conferences. Abram said: "There was much discussion in the halls about September 11th and whether this was an example of the failure of KM and intelligence systems, or whether this would be a new impetus for more energy and investment to be put into KM applications. Either way, the mood was muted as the seriousness of the role of knowledge access and discovery was put into this perspective. It wasn't just about finding files and smarter employees anymore."

All things considered, the combination of wonderful speakers, highly relevant session tracks, and exceptionally bright attendees made this an interesting and informative conference. Though air travel took a serious hit in September, there has been a huge resurgence in people flying since then. I can foresee bigger and better things for not only the economy but for the conference industry as a whole.

John Eichorn is editor of Information Today. His e-mail address is

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