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Knowledge Management

April 19th, 2004 · 2 Comments

James Fallows writes in the New York Times:

A current race for a solution goes by the deceptively blah name of “knowledge management,” or K.M. It is an effort to bring Google-like clarity to the swamp of data on each person’s machine or network, and it is based on the underappreciated tension between a computer’s capacity and a person’s. Modern computers “scale” well, as the technologists say – that is, the amount of information they can receive, display and store goes up almost without limit. Human beings don’t scale. They have finite amounts of time, attention and, even when they’re younger than the doddering baby boomers, short-term memory. The more e-mail, Web links and attached files lodged in their computer systems, the harder it can be for people to find what they really want.

If anything, the challenge of helping people find their own information is harder than what Google has done. Search engines let you explore sites you haven’t seen before. Knowledge management systems should let you easily retrieve that Web page, that phone number, that interesting memo you saw last month and meant to do something with.

The current creative struggle is important because, when it yields a victor, it will leave everyone less frustrated about using a computer. What makes the struggle intriguing is that it involves two great axes of competition. On the business level, it is another installment of that ancient tale, Microsoft vs. the World. On the conceptual level, it raises basic questions about what knowledge is.

The underlying intellectual question about knowledge management is whether people actually think of knowledge as a big heap of laundry just out of the dryer, or as neatly folded pajamas, shirts and so on, all placed in the proper drawers. The “big heap” theory lies behind some of the programs: we don’t care where or how things are stored; we just want to find certain pairs of socks – or P.D.F. files – exactly when we need them. The “folded PJ’s” theory guides a variety of programs that let you mark information as it shows up – for instance, tagging an article you know you want to refer to later, when shopping for a new car. Brains work both ways, and the ideal K.M. software will, too.

Google’s success suggests that there is a huge potential for solving a problem that people didn’t realize they had until the right solution appeared.

Tags: Software

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