What is knowledge management? (Revisiting the question again)

In one of my very first blog posts (my second, actually), I asked the question, “What is knowledge management, anyway?” Like many others, I’ve never really found a truly satisfactory answer, though there are very many answers to chose from. In the post KM 0.0…, Dave Pollard presents this definition:

KM is simply the art enabling trusted, context-rich conversations among the appropriate members of communities about things these communities are passionate about.

Dave’s use of the term “simply” underscores, to me anyway, how basic his definition really is. What I really like about it is that it is all about the people and the importance of the connections between those people. In fact, the post is all about “what some have called KM 2.0, but which I prefer to call KM 0.0, because it’s getting back to the roots of why and how people share what they know.”

In that post long ago where I asked the KM question, I said the following:

Knowledge Management is not something that makes each individual’s job performance better, it is something that make the organization perform better. It is entirely possible that in order for an organization to do its best some of the individuals within that organization will do less than their best.

As you may have guessed from some of my recent writings, I don’t really believe that any more.


Information wants to be free, but you still need to protect it

If you are like me a lot of the information you use to do your job resides on your computer, most likely on a laptop. Lose your laptop (and by extension the raw materials of your craft) and doing your job becomes difficult, if not impossible, until you are able to gather it back up. Obviously, a good backup strategy is critical.

But the loss of the information not only hinders your ability to do your work, it potentially puts your information, your competitive advantage, in the hands of the “wrong” people. In How to Secure your Computer, Disk, and Portable Drives, security expert Bruce Schneier gives some advice on how to prevent this from happening:

Computer security is hard. Software, computer and network security are all ongoing battles between attacker and defender. And in many cases the attacker has an inherent advantage: He only has to find one network flaw, while the defender has to find and fix every flaw.

Cryptography is an exception. As long as you don’t write your own algorithm, secure encryption is easy. And the defender has an inherent mathematical advantage: Longer keys increase the amount of work the defender has to do linearly, while geometrically increasing the amount of work the attacker has to do.

Unfortunately, cryptography can’t solve most computer-security problems. The one problem cryptography can solve is the security of data when it’s not in use. Encrypting files, archives — even entire disks — is easy.

This is how I protect my laptop.

Schneier goes on to discuss just that, along with some useful information about why he does certain things, such as:

The reason you encrypt your entire disk, and not just key files, is so you don’t have to worry about swap files, temp files, hibernation files, erased files, browser cookies or whatever. You don’t need to enforce a complex policy about which files are important enough to be encrypted. And you have an easy answer to your boss or to the press if the computer is stolen: no problem; the laptop is encrypted.

If you’re serious about securing your laptop, and protecting your information, give this post (and the links from it) a long, hard read. If you’re serious about security in general, you should think about adding Schneier on Security to your feed list.

Information: The raw material of knowledge work

If knowledge work is indeed a craft, then information is the raw material in which knowledge workers (fwiw, I hate that term but can’t come up with anything better) work. What really intrigues me about the idea of information as raw material is that you can give the same information to two different people, and end up with completely different products. There are only a few ways you can turn aluminum into a can (or bottle), but there are an almost infinite variety of ways you can turn information into knowledge.

The tools and techniques (and tricks) that these workers use to manipulate these raw materials evolve over time, and everyone handles their information a bit differently, but there are some general themes in managing information that can be applied. Along these lines, Jack Vinson has posted a review of Personal Information Management, edited by William Jones and Jaime Teevan (published by U of Washington Press), which addresses these common themes:

First off, this is an academic effort, rather than something aimed at mainstream audiences. It does a great job of referencing recent research in the arena of PIM and looks at a number of angles. The editors went to some lengths to create a fictional story line to be used by the chapter authors in order to establish a thread throughout the book, but I found it only partially helpful in explaining the ideas and concepts being discussed.

The central organizing effort of the book is around activities associated with PIM: collecting information, organizing information, and finding information (that has been collected/organized), as shown here in my crude graphic. Each chapter focuses on the academic work being pursued around an aspect of these activities.

Going back to my last post on Lilia Efimova’s Knowledge Work Framework, “information” as I’m thinking of it is represented on the left side of her diagram, the area of non-active awareness. The area between the left and right would represent the “management” of the information, the manipulation of the raw materials to create a new product, in this case a widget of knowledge.

Of course, this new piece of “knowledge” becomes another piece of “information” that feeds into someone else’s knowledge work framework, or may even feed back into the creator’s.

Books, books, and more books

As I mentioned a couple of posts back, it was a social networking site related to books, Shelfari, that recently brought me back into the blogosphere. I’ll write some more about that (and social networks in general) in a bit, but for now I just want to talk about books themselves. Or, at least, books in the news. It was a busy week last week in book news.

This week, On the Media is dedicating the entire show to one of our favorite topics – books. From Oprah’s Book Club to the Google Library Project, the way we buy, search, read and even discuss books is changing. And so we begin with a look at some of the forces now tugging at the industry.

A new report from the National Endowment for the Arts reveals that Americans are reading less frequently and less proficiently. The report links the decline in voluntary reading among teens and young adults to poorer performance in school. It also raises questions about the role of reading in a world full of digital distractions.

  • And then, while I’m in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, I see the 26 November issue of Newsweek, with a picture of Jeff Bezos and the headline The Future of Reading.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos already built a better bookstore. Now he believes he can improve upon one of humankind’s most divine creations: the book itself. (If you’ve shopped Amazon.com recently, you know what Bezos is talking about: the Kindle.)

Like someone’s trying to send me a message: READ MORE BOOKS!!!

I’m the first to admit that I don’t read nearly as much as I used to. And the subjects of my reading has changed quite a bit too. I used to have a steady diet of fiction, then a bit of a mix of fiction / non-fiction, and now an almost exclusive diet of non-fiction.

Looking back, it seems that my taste in reading is somewhat tied to my life at the time. My interest in military / political fiction was undoubtedly sparked by my service as a military officer. Though fictional, the stories in these books provided great insight into leadership, conduct of operations, etc.

As I moved into the “corporate” world, where there is a bit less (a lot less, actually) fiction that can be helpful in learning and growing, I turned to non-fiction business books. The books that appealed to me most were the ones that have a bit of narrative feel to them. I have a few of the “checklist” type books, but never really got much out of them.

And as I’ve gotten older – and as my kids have gotten older – I’ve developed a bit more of an interest in the nature of the world and our place in it. My elder son’s autism has also inspired a deep interest in how the human mind works, and what it is that makes each of us unique (or not).

My wife, on the other hand, reads a lot. I mean a whole bunch, putting me to shame. This is consistent, though, with the findings of the study mentioned in the Talk of the Nation piece, so I don’t feel too bad. (Read “Why women read more than men” on the TOTN page for this story for more details.)

Still, that’s no excuse. I know it’s not quite New Year’s, but I’ll go in for a resolution anyway: I resolve to read at least as much fiction as non-fiction. Just watch me on Shelfari if you want to see how I do. (And let me know if you’d like to join my friends list, I’m curious what you are reading, too.)