Information Today
Volume 18, Issue 7 — July/August 2001
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IT Report from the Field
KnowledgeNets 2001
This conference provided a thorough whirlwind tour of KM topics
by Denise Bruno

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 management.

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 today's organizations."

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 favorable comments.

Early Highlights
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.

Taxonomy Panel
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 file."

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 of knowledge.

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.

KM Applications
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 disclosure.

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.

Closing Keynotes
Immediately following Snowden, in a warp-speed closing keynote, Nick Bontis, chief knowledge officer of 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 management.

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 for it.

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

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