How Wikis Are Transforming Knowledge Management
For most of man's history, "knowledge" was not a concept that needed to be managed. From ancient times until the 20th century, if you sought out knowledge on a topic, you would listen to a teacher or check out books (or parchment) from a library. You might gain knowledge simply by observing the activities of people, animals, heavenly bodies or storm clouds.
But teachers age and their knowledge is lost, books become out of date quickly with changes in scientific knowledge and shifting global boundaries. The number of things we need to observe to survive becomes far greater than each person's ability to do so alone. In other words, in the past, much of what we knew to be true stood a good chance of being restricted in its transmission, forgotten or simply proved incorrect; and the ability to get the right answers became more limited as the pace of change increased.
By the late 20th century globalization had scattered the institutional knowledge of companies and organizations all over six continents. People in one location often knew little or nothing about the information that drove those in another (and vice versa), even though collectively that knowledge was crucial to organizational success. At the same time, people needed access to knowledge faster to meet the speed of innovation. Workforce training programs began to seem cumbersome and far too slow for nimble businesses. In short, knowledge became expensive to acquire in terms of time and effort-it often was labor intensive, difficult to locate and complicated to bring up to date.
The concept of "knowledge management" really didn't take shape until about 1995, when universities and professional journals began concentrating on how the accumulated knowledge in organizations becomes accessible to knowledge workers. Programs focusing on knowledge management generally have objectives for improving performance, boosting innovation, advancing collaboration and other business enhancements.
The problem with these programs, however, has been that employees generally have expressed low interest and demonstrated low involvement in them. As a result, companies have found it necessary to appoint teams to contact knowledge centers-people and technology-to gather the information they need to execute projects.
In corporate structures across America, those knowledge centers largely exist in the person of and/or the technology controlled by individuals in the Baby Boom generation. This massive population, which has been the principal driver of both business and consumerism since the 1960s, now is beginning to retire, and the potential consequences for knowledge management could be disastrous.
For many companies, much of their institutional memory, customer profiles and technological know-how are being carried around in the minds of these Boomers. When they walk out the door into retirement, they will take much of the organization's knowledge base with them.
The computer and software industry has responded to the need for collecting data more centrally. Options began with such practices as simply sharing floppy disks among users. Besides being immensely inefficient, this methodology opened computer systems to transportation of malicious viruses. The client-server concept, with its file-share servers, provided easier access than did mainframe computers; but the "management" aspect of knowledge management suffered when servers became cluttered with multiple versions of documents and questions about who filed what in which folder.
More recently, software engineers developed solutions that allow an organization to collect all its knowledge in a single database and provide access through servers or via the Web to its employees locally or remotely. The arrival of customer relationship management and enterprise resource planning systems marked an effective way of institutionalizing knowledge, but these applications are expensive to implement and maintain, and they often require adoption of new workflow processes. Certainly they entail the employment of an IT staff for administration and often a separate group for managing content.
Collaborative project management software is available through the Web, but such applications tend to be complex and limited if knowledge sharing is required beyond the project management discipline.
Many midsize and large enterprises have adopted a portal-based system that provides access to all the organizations documents and resources through intranet sites. These kinds of systems, however, involve considerable expense, often require a separate server and incorporate functions that 80 percent of the organization's staff never use and never bother to learn.
Most recently, a new method of managing knowledge has emerged, based on the popular model of the wiki. A wiki is a document or collection of documents, hosted on the Web or an intranet that allows any individual or team authorized to log into the site to edit the material and add comments or content.
The wiki concept has begun to revolutionize knowledge management by making it much simpler, instead of making it more complex, as some other technologies have done. Wikis enable anyone to publish knowledge easily and store that information in a centralized database. Wikipedia is the most renowned wiki. This encyclopedia on the Web is written by those who visit the site, with contributions from around the world on every imaginable topic. At last report, Wikipedia incorporated nearly 2.4 million articles, far more knowledge than could be stored in a usable manner in a printed reference series or a portal system.
Because it is so easy to use, the wiki is proving to be a more successful tool than previous technology in transferring what is in the minds of employees to a common knowledge repository. Software companies worldwide now are adopting the wiki model for their latest programs. Newspapers have learned the value of the wiki for gathering and sharing knowledge, transforming their online editions into truly interactive sites where visitors not only can comment on the news but can contribute news articles in wiki-like fashion.
Wikis as they originally emerged were limited to some extent in that their information was organized through cross-linking of pages. As a result, the millions of articles and hundreds of millions of data points within them were placed in the system in an unstructured fashion, sometimes making it difficult to find the specific information for which a visitor was looking.
Current developers of knowledge management systems, however, are using a taxonomy to organize information, enabling the right data to be retrieved through a powerful search capability. For example, Nuospace (www.nuospace.com) employs a Web-based wiki that is easy to use and far less costly than much of today's other knowledge-management software. In Nuospace, everything is a wiki, including documents, spreadsheets, company blogs, forums and e-newsletters. Each uploaded document automatically becomes its own wiki page, with clearly visible discussion and version comments. Nuospace also permits users to segment and store content on a Web-based server, eliminating the need for e-mail attachments. And the wiki system requires no IT administrator or content management team.
As information management undergoes a potentially disruptive transformation, generated by exiting Boomers, companies are finding much more success in encouraging personnel to share their knowledge through socially based models like the wiki than with other technology. The wiki's simplicity is inspiring employees and managers alike to contribute more to the knowledge base.
The result is likely to be that Boomers will not create a shockwave in their wake, but will help lay the groundwork for an intuitive knowledge management system that invites all minds to participate.
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About the Author
Dimitri Lisitski is CEO and Founder of Nuospace, an SMBs knowledge management collaboration tool redefined the way to share information the wiki way.