|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.
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."
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,
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