|Although the hype surrounding knowledge management (KM) may have lessened
over the past few years, the complexity of it certainly has not. KnowledgeNets
2001, one of three simultaneous conferences within the InfoToday 2001 event,
took attendees on a 3-day whirlwind tour through the worlds of document
management, content management, information architecture, storytelling,
intranets, extranets, e-business, taxonomies, metadata, and, oh yes, knowledge
In this well-attended event, participants learned about theories, strategies,
processesand methodologies, tools, and applications. If, by the end of
KnowledgeNets, one left feeling slightly overwhelmed, it wouldn't have
been surprising. Knowledge management is a huge topic, yet the speakers
did an admirable job of addressing the conference's promise to provide
"complete coverage of knowledge management and its applications within
With such a broad topic at hand, it was curious that Robert Kahn's opening
keynote, "Managing Digital Objects on the Net," narrowly focused on digital
objects and their unique identification within a repository. For those
in attendance who were information professionals with a background in either
library science or information technology, nothing new was garnered. It
was a subdued opening that, given its emphasis on defining the structure
of a digital object and its deposit procedures, would have played better
as a session topic rather than an opening keynote.
The individual session presentations were a mix of theory and practice.
There were 23 presentations in all, distributed across two tracks for each
of the 3 days. These six tracks provided a veritable buffet of topics,
including organizational strategies and processes; technology and knowledge
architecture; KM and content management; KM technology and applications;
knowledge sharing and e-learning; and measuring, valuing, and KM case studies.
As with any conference, a few sessions were a bit off the mark and there
was some repetition between presentations, but overall, attendees returned
In one of the first sessions, Alan Marwick, a senior consultant at
the IBM T.J. Watson Research Center, talked about some of the research
work currently underway at IBM's Research Division. He examined the current
limitations of today's technology and discussed the additional challenges
posed by people's reluctance to share knowledge. In another point, Marwick
contended that conceptual-based searching is not yet ready—regardless of
what vendors say—because a thorough discussion of the topic has not yet
been published in the academic papers. "Academia usually finds the answer
first," he said.
Another highlight of the first day was the nuts-and-bolts case-study
session headed by Gerald Gschwind and John Schneble, both from VisionCor.
They outlined the development and implementation of a knowledge management
solution for Cisco's service and support managers. For those in the audience
who had been asked to design a solution for their own companies, this presentation
gave them the opportunity to ask numerous questions.
On the second day, within the "KM and Content Management" track, one
of the most anticipated and best-attended sessions took place. In an expanded
time format, four well-respected experts in the development of taxonomies
took center stage in a panel presentation. Wendi Pohs, principal taxonomy
specialist at Iris Associates; Vivian Bliss, knowledge management analyst
at Microsoft; Marjorie Hlava, CEO of Access Innovations; and Claude Vogel,
founder and chief technology officer at Semio, debated, expounded on, and
discussed the definition, creation, and implementation of taxonomies. As
evidenced by the packed room and the attendees' determination to remain
through to the very end despite sweltering conditions, this topic is obviously
at the forefront of many people's minds. So much to learn, so little time.
Pohs began with a definition—"a taxonomy is a hierarchical collection
of categories and documents"—and cited Yahoo! and Google as two examples.
She then discussed the benefits of taxonomies, namely how they encourage
the serendipitous discovery of information, improve navigation among related
topics, and enhance full-text searching. Then, during the next 20 minutes,
she outlined the steps required to construct a taxonomy: 1) determine user
information needs through an information audit, 2) create the initial taxonomy,
3) edit and rename categories, 4) create affinities, 5) categorize new
documents, 6) test the user interface, and 7) train the users. It was a
pragmatic, common-sense approach that was best suited for those just learning
about the topic.
Bliss contributed additional information to round out a project methodology.
She focused on a more high-level approach and described how taxonomies
and metadata are slotted in with information architecture, which is itself
only one layer in an overall project scheme.
Hlava concentrated on the finer points of constructing a thesaurus because,
according to her, a taxonomy is "a thesaurus with an attached authority
And just when you thought you had a clear understanding of this thing
called a taxonomy, Vogel stepped up to the podium and gave a passionate
10-minute discourse that held the attention of everyone in the room. He
claimed that most "taxonomies" referred to by information professionals
are in fact corporate directories because they're based on "grouping documents
in bins" with headers that are sometimes found along more than one branch
in the hierarchy.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Information architecture,
taxonomies, and metadata are new labels for tried-and-true concepts such
as librarianship, classification, and cataloging. One difference is that
today taxonomies (or should I say "corporate directories") and metadata
are applied to enterprisewide information and can involve mapping and codifying
an organization's business processes rather than just discrete collections
Although it was mentioned in passing during this session, a more detailed
discussion explaining how to create and link multiple taxonomies within
an organization would have been very useful. Also, there was unfortunately
no time for the speakers to address some of the political issues involved
in constructing a taxonomy. In my experience, the process includes a great
deal of hand-holding, diplomacy, and negotiation. Due to the tight timing
required to fitfour presentations into the time slot, there was no opportunity
to entertain a question-and-answer period, something that hopefully can
be incorporated into this session at next year's KnowledgeNets.
The last day steered away from a technology focus. Michael Spendolini,
president of MJS Associates, gave a presentation titled "How to Define
a Best Practice." Hewalked us through the three levels of best practices—working
practices, better practices, and best practices—and explained that it's
not critical that everything operate at the highest level. He warned us
to carefully examine the methodologies offered by external best-practice
experts and to be critical of any commercial best-practice database.
David Snowden, director of IBM's Institute for Knowledge Management,
was both a keynote speaker on the second morning and a session presenter
on the third afternoon. He took a different bent than the other presenters
by focusing on storytelling and knowledge management. By the positive reactions
of the audience, he obviously struck a chord with many. Maybe his talks
were so refreshing because they never mentioned technology as a solution.
Instead, in his second presentation, "Creating Human KnowledgeNets: Storytelling
and KM," Snowden explained how narrative can be used as a technique for
My apologies to Snowden if I do not adequately capture the essence of
his presentation. He said that anecdotes, myths, fables, archetypes, and
metaphors can all be used to help companies manage knowledge. Consultants
draw hypotheses and try to get the client to fit those answers; anthropologists
go in as unseen observers and watch the stories flow from person to person.
This allows them to observe people using knowledge they weren't aware of.
Snowden contends that stories allow people to tell the truth in a fictional
form because they're not attributable. For example, based on stories related
while standing around a water cooler,archetypes can be constructed to represent
certain types of people within an organization. From these archetypes a
company can anticipate how it will react to change. He cited the cartoon
"Dilbert" as a modern example of archetypes in action.
Immediately following Snowden, in a warp-speed closing keynote, Nick
Bontis, chief knowledge officer of Knexa.com and director of the DeGroote
School of Business' Institute for Intellectual Capital Research at McMaster
University, guided us along a high-energy trip, complete with props (a
glass of water and a cup of coffee remaining from a previous session),
throughconcepts and methods for capturing the value of knowledge. "Slow
down, slow down, you're speaking too quickly," people requested, to which
he cut the pace to a leisurely ramble for all of 30 seconds before he was
off and running again.
The glass of clear water represented the knowledge of an organization.
When filled to the top and then some, the overflow represented the loss
of knowledge to other companies as workers migrated from one organization
to another. Water poured back in represented training. Water sponged up
(using his tie!) from the carpet represented exit interviews. Then, coffee
poured in to muddy the clear water represented consultants. It was a humorous
ending to an intense 3 days of wrestling with the definition of knowledge
Scattered throughout Bontis' presentation were some other interesting
thoughts. "Turnover is the biggest disease of KM," he said. Knowledge management,
unlike gold, doesn't suffer from diminishing returns. Instead, as knowledge
is shared, its value goes up. Organizations must institutionalize some
"slack time" to allow people 15 minutes per day to write down "what I learned
today that the company did not know yesterday."
In the final keynote, Tom Davenport, director for strategic change at
Accenture and author of The Attention Economy: Understanding the New
Currency of Business, focused our attention on the topic of attention,
or the lack thereof. According to Davenport: "Today, attention is the real
currency of business and individuals. It has become the most valuable resource
for the New Economy knowledge worker." And no wonder. The average U.S.
white-collar worker sends and receives 220 messages per day in multiple
media. Sixty percent of office time is spent processing documents. 300,000
books are published each year worldwide. This speech would have worked
well as an opening keynote, for it would have encouraged each of us to
be discerning with our time spent with vendors and in sessions, and to
be far more pointed in our expectations of the conference. In essence,
if someone wants our attention they must offer something valuable in exchange
As a consequence of that last statement, two points in general about
the conference are worth noting. First, the vendor hall lacked some big
names in the field of knowledge management. Absent were Semio, Autonomy,
OpenText, and Verity, to name just a few. Second, and most important, none
of the speakers in the sessions I attended supplemented their presentations
with a live hookup to demonstrate an application tool. PowerPoint slides
ruled the day even when referencing a software product that automatically
creates hierarchies or indexes documents. Considering that technology was
one of the main themes, the use of static presentation slides that flashed
screen snaps left too much to the viewer's imagination in terms of traversing
from Point A to Point B.
As a challenge to the vendors of automated classification and/or indexing
software, if the technology allowed, it would be an interesting exercise
to gather together in one session two or more vendors who would be asked
to run their software against a small sample of documents. A real-time,
hands-on demonstration would certainly be a welcome change and would help
to fill the gap between theory and case-study reports.
Overall, the conference proved that there are many facets to knowledge
management. It appealed most to those seeking a solid introduction to the
topic. From the comments of attendees, people definitely walked away with
a few new things to consider. One participant, Ginny Browne from OCLC,
said, "My greatest frustration with the conference overall was that I couldn't
be in more than one session at a time." It was an apt comment that nicely
summed up the sentiment of many. The good thing is, we get to do it all
over again next year. Maybe by then, even the complexity of knowledge management
may have lessened.
[Editor's Note: For more on the other conferences, see Paula
J. Hane's "InfoToday 2001" and Marshall Breeding's
"IOLS Conference Morphs into E-Libraries".]
Denise Bruno is an independent consultant specializing in the development
of taxonomies and metadata for document management systems. Her e-mail
address is email@example.com.