(Shared) knowledge is power

While managing everyday business documents is crucial to any organisation's bottom line, untapped value lies in capturing the unstructured knowledge that resides in the collective "mind" of the organisation.

IT managers suffer a regular nightmare: being swept away in the flood of unstructured information that companies receive and produce — a flood set to grow 200% a year in the foreseeable future, says US market research firm The Yankee Group.

But while managing everyday business documents is crucial to any organisation’s bottom line, untapped value lies in capturing the unstructured knowledge that resides in the collective “mind” of the organisation.

Pure storage and retrieval of documents is an important function of many sides of a business, from the use of standard forms to the management of a helpdesk. Few businesses would stay well-organised for long without the passage of documents through a chain of workflow, receiving the necessary annotations, alterations and approvals.

This is so even though a lot of software used to manage these documents and processes would not be described as “document management” in the old sense of dedicated products like Filenet and The Silent One. “Groupware” tools like Lotus Notes are regularly discharging the document management discipline, and increasingly it is becoming entrusted to an intranet.

But a new move has kicked life into the market. Businesses are beginning to challenge the limitations of a document-and-database-oriented encapsulation of all, or even most, of the information of value to a company. They are seeking methods of capturing the knowledge which resides in the collective mind of an organisation — to make explicit the totally unstructured and “tacit” knowledge that might flit past in a meeting or an email discussion, or someone’s individual interpretation of a document residing on the “DM system”.

Japanese knowledge-management specialists Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi place emphasis on the emotional, human aspects of knowledge: “Knowledge, unlike information, is about beliefs and commitment,” they say. “We consider knowledge as a dynamic human process of justifying personal belief toward the ‘truth’.”

They say to use too much static recorded knowledge in the form of documents in the networked business environment “assume that it is unique and uncontradicted — for example, that there are no other conflicting versions”.

But teasing out that information, letting views collide and arrive at a consensus, is a process intimately bound with the culture of the organisation, and encouraging people to look at knowledge in a new way — as an asset to be shared, not possessed exclusively.

Document management began to make this possible, and the evolution of the concept is continuing towards, if not yet arriving at, full management of tacit and unstructured knowledge.

While still on the forefront of IT, some larger New Zealand organisations have been doing a good deal of thinking and practical implementation of systems to make this knowledge explicit, storable, retrievable and manageable.

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