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Part One: Building Your KM Nest - What Did Einstein Know about Knowledge Management?

Posted by Stephen Abram on 3/6/2018
Stephen Abram
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I once watched a robin build her nest from what was available around my yard. Her choices were interesting. She had lots of material to choose from, but kept picking up the shiny, silver tinsel from the discarded skeleton of our Christmas tree. Her nest was beautiful when done. It was also colder, and non-absorbent, and she was never able to successfully get her eggs to hatch. One of the morals of this story: Sometimes that which we find attracts us is not necessarily what’s best for the purpose.

Learn from the past

Perhaps adopting the latest shiny technologies for our libraries and users isn’t the best way to incubate knowledge and encourage the best behaviours in either society or organizations. Let’s learn from our past experiences. For example, we can ask the question, “if one of the real end-user benefits of the information based CD-ROM was its portability, how truly portable were CDs for large databases?” And, when we looked to DVDs to solve our problems with the limited storage capacity of a CD, we still hit walls. DVD may have been an interim solution but it didn’t ultimately succeed. A long term trend we now acknowledge is that Moore’s Law of storage capacity has now been transferred to bandwidth—the ‘cloud’ will solve it all. Why then did we want to invest in an emerging technology like DVD, when it was undoubtedly going to be surpassed by server-based products and ultimately the cloud? Indeed, the entire DVD technology was driven by the needs of movies, in the same way that CD-ROM was driven by the needs of music. These environments weren’t our wheelhouse. Wiring may drive bandwidth, but does anyone actually believe that the cable, copper and glass fiber-wiring infrastructure, so conscientiously built over the past century, will survive the onslaught of high bandwidth, wireless technologies? When (and it may be now) we have our users—actors in the knowledge-based society— seamlessly connected to oceans of information with no need to consider alternative delivery formats, we are in a different world.

The Knowledge Ecology

Hence, I use the term “Knowledge Ecology,” generally in preference to Knowledge Management. Frankly, I don’t think anyone can manage knowledge beyond their own. I do think that we can manage the Knowledge Ecology as it evolves and changes. Librarians are well prepared to deal with more change, and more changing technologies, than nearly anyone else—just because we embrace the human dimension. We don’t manage desktop design—we design for the human behind the glass! Is there a better positioning for the skills of librarians and information access professionals? Rushing to adopt shiny new technologies may do nothing to move librarians (or our institutions) towards our goals. Some library technology trends have emerged that salve the pain points of the transitional technologies. We need to acknowledge from our learned experiences that long-term technological stability is a chimera. Those of us who build our library’s technology and services find that we must be mindful of global trends or we may back ourselves into a corner, far from the mainstream of society. Below are some of my thoughts on the knowledge ecology and where tech trends really fit. Some may not be the most important trends since shift happens—but they’re what’s occupying my thoughts today, and I want to explore them in this post and consider what impact they may have on our libraries, our technology and ourselves as special information pros.

Back to Einstein: There is a distinct emphasis below on making the nest warm, and not going for the shiny stuff without considering the human context and need. Note that in this infographic below it’s mostly pictures of people, and not the tech stuff. Something of an insight therein.

Photo credit: Chris Collison (http://www.chriscollison.com/)

Before we think about what strategies we must undertake to be successful in the new age, we must acknowledge one fact: The Information Era failed. It failed miserably. The "Information Highway" metaphor is no longer useful. It’s worse than drinking water through a fire hose to receive all the information we need, all the time, anywhere! Our beloved users actually drowned as more and more information was shoved down the highway, simply because it was there. Purveyors were laying roads without a map and quickly discovered that new metaphors were needed. Information consumption isn’t about travelling down a road and stopping to pick some up at predefined intersections and towns.

That’s a telephone or cable TV model, and it serves the interests of those industries dependent on wire and heedless of the wireless environment. Information is an immersion environment and the appropriate metaphor is that of ‘‘Information Oceans,’’ not the ‘‘Information Highway.’’ We have entered the Knowledge Era. This is a Post-Information Age where the competitive advantage moves from information access to knowledge creation, from physical access to intellectual access. The successful services and knowledge objects will be products, enterprises and environments designed for precognition and adaptation.

As you enter the Knowledge Era, your focus must go from achieving stability to continuous redefinition and reinvention, while being comfortable with ambiguity and sustained chaos. "To react is to fail; to anticipate is to succeed." We already see this in the faster cycle-time for change and iteration—the compression of the concept through action continuum. Simply put, the world of right answers and facts gives way to consensus answers and informed guesses. It’s the difference between learning history through memorizing dates, and understanding history through synthesizing multiple viewpoints and scenarios.

As we enter the Knowledge Era, we move from the old Information Era, where the Gurus were those who understood the content and technology nuts and bolts, to one where the Gurus are those who understand and communicate innovation in a future context. Information combined with insight rules. Interestingly we see the supply and demand model of economics falling apart in the knowledge ecology, as we move to one where supply drives demand. The value-added (and therefore economically valuable) activities are filtering, selection, organizing, digesting, packaging, and just plain dealing with the flood of information.

Part Two in this three-part series will offer the first 5 of 10 strategies for success.


Stephen Abram is a popular Lucidea Webinars presenter. He is the past president of SLA, and the Canadian and Ontario Library Associations. He is the CEO of Lighthouse Consulting and the executive director of the Federation of Ontario Public Libraries. He blogs personally at Stephen’s Lighthouse. Watch for a new book from Lucidea Press on management tips for librarians in the spring of 2018!



Topics: Professional Development, Special Libraries, KM, Innovation