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Trends From KM World 2003:
Content Management Replaces Social Engineering

October 29, 2003 | feature

I was puzzled the first time I read about "knowledge management." How can you manage knowledge -- much less shuffle it around an organization -- when knowledge is a construct in an individual mind? People in information science and neurobiology were of the same opinion: you can manage information, but not knowledge. Knowledge is something that lives between your ears. It has to be reduced to information to be organized, stored, and transmitted.

For years the distinction was so clear that technical people didn't bother to make it, and often used the words knowledge and information interchangeably. Perhaps that was a mistake, because with growing talk of "the semantic web", and the increasingly popular data>information>knowledge>wisdom paradigm, it helped open the door to masses of late 1990's social engineering consultants hyping knowledge management as The Next Big Thing.

They had no shortage of allies. Visionaries of all manner charged the ramparts, armed with natural language processing, algorithms, topic maps, and ontologies -- everything but experience.

That momentum seems to be dead and buried, if the recent KM World-Intranets Convention in Santa Clara, California (Oct. 14-16) is any indicator. While a few dozen booths does not make for a solid statistical base, I nevertheless took the time to collect sales brochures from each booth, take them home, spread them out, and highlight all the hot-button words.

Of all the companies, only three were pushing KM as their core product, and one of those had carefully rewritten it as "Bottom-up Knowledge Management" -- as the sales rep allowed, to differentiate themselves from social engineering consultants. Even the conference's home page reflects this, with the subtitle "Content, Document, and Knowledge Management" placing knowledge last in the trinity. Roughly, this is the current hit parade:

Barely Hanging In
Total Content management Knowledge
End-to-end Search Solutions
NLP Information retrieval XML
Artificial intelligence Structured/unstructured data Collaboration
  Expert systems  

So we can thank the dot-bomb for something: the high-tech shakeout cleared a fair few kook notions off the table.

Yet if KM has faded from the suppliers' offerings, it does seem to be hanging on in the corporations. There was a lot more KM talk on in the lecture halls than there was on the exhibit floor. This is not surprising; both sales and tech people told me they are having difficulty narrowing corporate expectations to more realistic, useful software and strategies. They particularly named Chief Knowledge Officers and Chief Information Officers as the roadblock to rationality.

So the old order changeth, but reluctantly -- and the changes are coming from the software vendors. Fair enough. Good computerized information management could have been broadly available 20 years ago, and while it's easy enough to point the finger at consultants and suits, coders themselves were not exactly walking around organizations asking end-users what they really wanted.

With the disappearance of "total end-to-end solutions", the software vendors at KMWorld were on the whole taking on manageable tasks, in reasonable bites. In large part I suspect this is because document software companies have at last started to hire people with degrees in information science (yes, "librarians"), who have been in this business for a few thousand years. With equal wisdom, several of the companies had hired cultural anthropologists -- the people who study how humans act in groups.

For example, Your Amigo ( is an Australian product that makes no pretense of organizing content, much less the deeper structures. It's simply about retrieving both static and dynamically generated content from every nook and cranny in an organization's network. Though the technical representative graciously did not say so, I suspect he was thinking "... no matter how badly the client has bungled their content management." This is a rational beginning, since it allows an organization's content manager breathing room to see what users are really looking for, and map out a rational plan for re-structuring content.

Entopia ( has a two-tier approach that makes equal sense: the customer can either buy the content management system, if they think they know what they're doing, or simply buy an information retrieval module first, track user activity, and then overhaul the network. The tech representative was realistic about the learning curve involved in tailoring a content management system to a given organization. Tracking included number of file accesses listed by job position, so someone new to the system could immediately learn what their counterparts are reading and accessing.

Expert systems have also retreated (or advanced?) to the manageable and useful. Though they were once "the next big thing" themselves, the CEO of EXSYS ( pointedly said that expert systems reach their limits when dealing with diagnosis of complex, fluid situations. So the company's bread and butter is in dealing with complex but rigid situations, government regulation being the prime example. From immigration regulations to traffic laws, he cited numerous examples where a completely ignorant user can come to an accurate conclusion and plan of action, print out the appropriate forms, and complete the job on their own.

This might not help design a new rocket nozzle. On the other hand, it will allow the rocket scientist to deal with a traffic ticket quickly, and be back in the lab half an hour sooner -- a pretty good example of smart resource allocation.

Other companies aren't even going after the enterprise-level market. A company called It's The Content ( was bluntly advertising their content management software for workgroups, typically of no more than 30 people (Do I hear "tribal size"?) With groups of such size there is no need for complicated information retrieval. Everyone knows who knows what; at the most there are two degrees of separation between seeker and information, and a well-thought interface showing authorship, ownership, and document status goes a long way towards retrieving the right information.

This is not to say that common sense has won the war. The sell-in of practical information management systems will continue to face obstacles in a world plagued by PowerPoint presentations. For every lucid whitepaper given, there was the usual deranged slide show of boxes, circles, and feedback loops, about as enlightening as Total Quality Management in its heyday.

So what does the future hold? Asked for his prediction of the stock market, financier J.P. Morgan replied, "The market will fluctuate." Asked for my predictions about the content/information management sector, I reply, "The shakeout will continue."

However, it would be a shame to end a paper entitled "Deconstructing Knowledge" without at least one radical prediction. This is the prediction: organizations are slowly learning there is no silver bullet to knowledge. Appointing a CKO and then buying an "end-to-end" solution doesn't work, anymore than the classic cartoon of a CEO telling his assistant, "What's a corporate culture, and can we have one in place by the end of the week?"

So the CKOs will learn that information has to be tailored far more carefully than they had anticipated. What few of them see coming is that only one presently available tool can do that tailoring: the human brain.

In the maniacal attempt to automate everything, futile attempts will be made to work around that fact. Now that most of the better-thought content management software comes with the capacity for adding a thesaurus, to allow for alternate search terms, organizations will start out by pouring Roget's Thesaurus or the equivalent into the data structure. This has been tried. It won't work. There will another round of efforts to tweak the data structures automagically with still-embryonic theories such as natural language processing, topic maps, and latent semantic indexing. That won't work either.

At the last they will turn to the idea of hiring humans to tweak content and even storage structure. The benefits of this will be difficult to measure, and the organization that flies by the theory "you cannot manage what you cannot measure" will drive itself crazy. Organizations that settle for a more rational "you cannot manage what you do not understand" will do better.

If that prediction comes to pass, a second consequence is inevitable: in a specialty-mad world, HR departments will begin hiring people with degrees in content management. Perhaps they will hire librarians. Or perhaps colleges will start offering Content Management degrees. It matters little, since the creation and transfer of knowledge are ideally born of two skill-sets: information handling and subject knowledge. In a tool company, the best person to manage the information base might not be an information professional, but an experienced machinist who programs computers as a hobby -- highly familiar with the subject, and able to ramp up quickly on the information tools.

Novelist William Gaddis summed up the impossibility of directly "managing knowledge" so elegantly that it would be foolish to attempt improvement on his words:

"Knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized. This leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are merely irrelevant forces that threaten it from outside. In fact it's exactly the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos."

This is as it should be. While wisdom is about constant, unchanging truths, both knowledge and information are fluid and many-faceted. Like a rose, they only grow on the vine. Hence the organization that tries to manage content rigidly may fare as badly as the one that ignores content management altogether.

Some groups have no use for either information or knowledge. Used car sales will always be a sport of the glib in pursuit of the gullible. Organizations that ride the waves of change are another matter, and here success will go to those who practice both discipline and flexibility in their management of information.

Appreciation for background information extended to: Nancy Garman, Program Chair, KMWorld-Intranets Conference 2003 Vic Dembowski, Document Systems Integrator Ellen Alers, Archivist, Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) Doug Engelbart, Bootstrap Institute Arian Ward, CEO, Community Frontiers

2003 Hastings Research, Inc. All rights reserved.

Nicholas Carroll is a project manager with Hastings Research. His most recent article was "The Future of End-Users and Info Pros in Information Retrieval", Searcher: The Magazine for Database Professionals, June 2003. He can be reached at


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