The Knowledge Capture Culture

Published in TDAN.com January 2006

Consultants love to write articles in trade rags that brag about their successes so people will want to hire them to make similar success in their organization. This article takes a different
twist. It describes a past project that was successful, but didn’t have the lasting benefits that we’d hoped it would. This is therefore a “post-mortem” on a prior project to explore what
worked, what didn’t, and what we have to do next time to reap lasting success in the longer term, and affect something very difficult to achieve: culture change.


Background

One of my clients recently implemented a dictionary/glossary by and for the business people. I was very excited about this because I saw it as a step forward in what I’m calling the “Knowledge
Capture Culture”.

In my prior article, Launching a Corporate Glossary (http://www.tdan.com/i033ht01.htm), I described how we were trying to accomplish a
wikipedia[1] concept of business folks entering business terms into the glossary. The important concept here was we wanted the dictionary to be authored by the
business people themselves, not just someone in a corporate library group or the IT department.

The dictionary launched successfully, but it didn’t get the usage we had hoped. Does this mean the Knowledge Capture Culture is not achievable? I don’t think so; I think that we didn’t go far
enough in our experiment to test it adequately.


The Importance of a Dictionary

I expressed in my last article the importance of a dictionary, the main point being to ensure that everyone is on the same page and using the same words that mean the same thing to everyone
involved. I see the importance of a dictionary, for sure; I have always been a philologist, and when asking my father about the meaning of a strange word, he would reply, “Look it up in the
dictionary!” Alas, most people have not grown up with this skill as ingrained as I did. Unless looking something up in the dictionary is as easy as clicking on the word and right click (or
something very similar), people aren’t going to go out of their way to do it.

Dictionaries serve three audiences extremely well:

  • New employees trying to learn the vocabulary of the business
  • Translation between one line of business’ jargon to another
  • Victims of a software migration

Dictionaries are extremely important for new employees, who are often barraged with all sorts of new words all at once with no clue what most of them mean (some industries are worse than others!).
Dictionaries also earn their keep when one line of business (LOB) has to share reports produced by another, and sometimes LOB-specific terminology is found on the report, and the user has to
interpret it into their own terminology. Lastly, dictionaries are extremely useful when a major migration occurs from one system to another. The systems have their own vocabularies and semantics,
and translation between the business’ lingo and that of the system is not easy.


Capture vs. Dissemination

The dictionary project had two major components: information capture (getting people to enter terms and their definitions) and dissemination (getting people to query the dictionary for a
definition).

Dissemination

Dissemination is a challenge with any new software but in this case, especially for a dictionary. Not much mindshare is taken up in popular business culture today about dictionaries. OK, a
dictionary is out there; so what? That’s nice. And I go about my work. Maybe I’ll use it, maybe I won’t.

Along with this comes the troubling realization that most people are slightly annoyed when they don’t understand what a word means, but not annoyed enough to “look it up”. They just ignore it
and move on.

Capture

Let’s talk about the Knowledge Capture issue for a moment. How do you encourage people to share what they know? If people would share their knowledge freely, the business would have much to gain.
People would learn from others faster and easier and the business itself would advance and improve greatly. We might achieve the dream of the “Learning Culture”. In addition, the greatest
repository of business knowledge is the Carbon-Based Life Form. When one of these leaves the firm, an immense repository leaves with him/her. If we encourage people to share their business
know-how, it is less of a liability when an individual leaves.

Sharing knowledge has two sides: People don’t want to share (that’s the sinister side) and even among those who do want to share, it isn’t easy. Some corporate cultures perceive knowledge as
power. In these cultures, the result is knowledge hoarding and much resistance to information sharing. Even when sharing is perceived to be a good thing, how does one share their information? Do
you write it down? This is clumsy. Nobody takes dictation anymore, and voice recognition software is getting better but it’s not perfect by any means.


What is the Knowledge Capture Culture?

I perceive the Knowledge Capture Culture as one where two aspects are in harmony with one another:

  • Corporate culture (which is a human thing) encourages and rewards knowledge capture.
  • Systems (both manual and automated) are in place that make both the capture and dissemination of information easy.

In the Knowledge Capture Culture, everyone understands the advantages of knowledge sharing (we all become smarter!) and sharing is valued. The Knowledge Capture Culture makes it easy to share
information, with systems that facilitate both capture and sharing.

Which is harder, the people or systems aspect? Perhaps the first one, involving the people factors. Human issues are always a challenge. If it wasn’t for company politics, you say, you would have
____________ (fill in the blank). Everyone has felt the sting of company politics.

James McQuade presented an excellent paper at DAMA International last year called Combining Business Metadata Delivery with Knowledge Management. His company, Giant Eagle, is a grocery store
chain trying to encourage store managers to publish knowledge artifacts: insights about the business that others in geographically distributed areas can gain wisdom from. Mr. McQuade stressed that
the people issues were the most important, and you must have support for knowledge capture in every level of the knowledge creation chain.

But back to the project…


The Project’s Success

After several hurdles with technology (you can read about them by accessing the link above), we launched the dictionary successfully. Response was measured in both capture and dissemination
(searches) but metrics were difficult because they were measuring portal hits and not database searches. We had good response the first month, because we offered an incentive: we had a contest.
After the contest period, use of the dictionary waned, especially in term capture. In addition, the company went through an acquisition (they got bought), and many employees were reassigned or laid
off. The terms governance team had three members, and one of them was assigned to a different job. It could be said that the company has different priorities right now, and dictionary isn’t one of
them (but it could be; terminology is always an issue during an acquisition, but it is often not recognized due to all the other overwhelming problems that overshadow it).

However, it is important to note that the company now has a corporate dictionary. We will come back to this fact later. The project was a success.


Knowledge Capture Culture and Wikipedia

The dictionary project brought my client closer to a Knowledge Capture Culture, although it was an extremely small baby step. We are trying to encourage business people to share their expertise,
even if it is only in regards to business terminology.

Difference between Wiki and our Dictionary

Although we modeled our dictionary loosely after Wikipedia, we did not use the open-source software provided by Media Wiki (the actual name of the wikipedia company). The scope of our project
included only business terms and their definitions. Perhaps if we had expanded our project and included a tool more oriented towards an encyclopedia, it might have aided in the Knowledge Capture
exercise, in a broader concept than just business terms.

James McQuade, in the presentation I mentioned above, spoke about the challenges of technology in knowledge capture, which were legion. What if you were to use a simple wikipedia for such a thing?

Difference Between Wikipedia and Portal Collab

You might say, “we are using a portal collaboration (collab) area to encourage people to share insights and questions. What advantage does wikipedia bring?”

Wikipedia offers these main advantages:

  • Wikipedia is not restricted to any one community, like a collab is.
  • Wikipedia allows entries to stand alone, classified according to their title. Collabs are threads, and an entry is always stuck in the hierarchy of the thread, and the message it was responding
    to.
  • Wikipedia has a page for threads if they are desired. But the thread is attached to the entry and not the other way around.
  • In a wikipedia, anyone can update another’s entry. This is not so in collab areas. A message on a thread always stays the same, even if someone wants to edit it later. Some collabs allow you
    to edit your own post, but certainly not someone else’s.


Visibility vs. Usefulness

Our boss was looking for a small project with high visibility that would help all business people in the company see the value of data management. Many people saw the value of a dictionary, but
alternatively, many saw it as trivial. It is obviously not a high visibility project.

However, once established, it is there. When a new employee needs to understand business jargon, they have a place to go to find out what the word means. The problem is, you cannot
let a dictionary sit without occasional maintenance. New words will not be added and old archaic terms will not get purged. Therefore, it is likely to become a “legacy system” if you are not
careful.

Even if this is the fate of the dictionary, it still will be useful (but not as much if it were kept up-to-date). The dictionary’s value may not be measured in number of hits. It is valuable
because it is there when you need it.

My expectations were high; now I see that you have to take baby steps before you can walk, and you must walk before you can run.


The Future

I am exploring new ways of presenting and implementing this Knowledge Management concept. My new company, Project Performance Corporation, is considering developing a wiki that is modified to allow
Governance Lite. The more I think about this, perhaps the way to go would be to introduce an encyclopedia right away rather than limiting it as just a dictionary. What are your thoughts, Gentle
Reader? I see the need for a dictionary, for sure, with both candidate and authorized terms in it. On the other hand, I see the need for a corporate encyclopedia of knowledge artifacts. Perhaps
they are related; can the same wiki be used for both a dictionary and encyclopedia? Or are they entirely different things, requiring different technologies?

I would love to get your feedback on this subject. You can email me at boneil@ppc.com. Do you think they are two nuances of the same kind of problem: Can an informal
governance (like wiki uses today) work better for an encyclopedia but not as well as for a dictionary, where authorized terms are beneficial? I will take this up in a future column. Watch this
space.

[1] “Wikipedia” is an open source encyclopedia on the internet; see www.wikipedia.com.

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About Bonnie O'Neil

Bonnie O'Neil is a Principal Computer Scientist at the MITRE Corporation, and is internationally recognized on all phases of data architecture including data quality, business metadata, and governance. She is a regular speaker at many conferences and has also been a workshop leader at the Meta Data/DAMA Conference, and others; she was the keynote speaker at a conference on Data Quality in South Africa. She has been involved in strategic data management projects in both Fortune 500 companies and government agencies, and her expertise includes specialized skills such as data profiling and semantic data integration. She is the author of three books including Business Metadata (2007) and over 40 articles and technical white papers.

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