EMEDIA PROFESSIONAL, APRIL 1999 | On the eve of a new millennium, in light of technologies that have altered forever the nature of productivity, a staunch proclamation like Clark's seems short-sighted at best, ignorant at worst. With the dawn of the Computer Age in the latter half of the twentieth century, corporate functionality (read: profitability) became irreversibly dependent on systems that create, store, distribute, and archive every company's so-called "knowledge base."
This indefinable non-entity--so vigilantly guarded and harvested by businesses in industries of all types--consists not only of mission-critical files documenting corporate activities, but of a larger, harder-to-quantify familiarity with everything that keeps a company running successfully. Accompanying this new reliance in recent years on computers to manage everyday business tasks, says Gordon Olson, chairman of the U.K.'s Global Recall, was a "change in the corporate culture, best summarized as a mindset shift from `knowledge is power' to `shared knowledge is profit.'" As a result, companies who wish to stay competitive in their respective industries have scrambled to preserve, manage, and distribute valuable information that employees require and customers demand. From this push for immediate accessibility has come a fragmented market of hardware, software, and services branded as document--or more recently, knowledge--management solutions.
Inherent to any knowledge management initiative are two fundamental needs: storage and distribution. Over the years, vendors have hailed a plethora of products as the be-all, end-all in storing and distributing information. In fact, MO, WORM, RAID, DLT, tape, and CD are just some of the media formats that have carved niches in this lucrative market.
With the evolution of the Inter/intra/ extranet and DVD, though, Chief Knowledge Officers (CKOs) and Chief Information Officers (CIOs), IT managers, and anyone even remotely concerned with maintaining successful business communications both internally and externally have faced some very real, very hard questions. How they're answered depends both on your circumstances and who you ask.
So what are these very real, very hard questions? Take your pick:
* Do I really need to be worried about knowledge management?
* Should I be storing my business data on DVD or more traditional media?
* Will DVD replace CD as the storage and distribution medium of choice, and if so, when?
* What do I do with the data I've already stored on aging, perhaps soon-to-be-obsolete media?
* Is it safe to distribute this mission-critical information online?
* What products should I consider for these types of applications?
At the heart of these questions and countless others, say industry insiders, are three great debates: document versus knowledge management, storage versus distribution needs, and CD versus every conceivable alternative media type.
document management versus knowledge management: it's all in the terminology
On its basest level, document management is concerned with the organization, preservation, management, and accessibility of shared, networked document types ranging from spreadsheets and bills to memos and reports to audio and multimedia. Knowledge management, on the other hand, considers the document to be one piece of the much larger "corporate knowledge base" puzzle. In Ushering in the Knowledge-based Economy--a white paper published in Forbes last year--The Delphi Group's Executive Vice President and Co-Founder Carl Frappaolo defines knowledge management as a process that "enables organizations to find new ways to readily share both their explicit knowledge (that which is easily codified and stored online) and their tacit knowledge (that which is elusive and collectively held in the brains and experiences of employees)." In his view, then, explicit knowledge consists of the documents a company generates throughout its history, while tacit knowledge lies within the expertise of its employees.
And while studies from Delphi's Insight Series Research service confirm that both knowledge and document management technologies are profiting to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year, many real-world users are still scratching their heads in confusion. For example, a Xerox survey of Canada's CEOs and CIOs in summer 1998 revealed that most of that country's top executives are unsure how to handle document management issues. While more than 70 percent of the CEOs and 80 percent of the CIOs polled recognized document management as a key business challenge, far fewer of them (43 percent of the CEOs and 25 percent of the CIOs) had actually conducted a formal assessment of their company's document management strategies. So what does this mean for the future of knowledge management?
According to Jon Thompson, vice president of business development for Mountain View, California's Sidana Systems, business users need real solutions to their knowledge management problems. "I think the concept of `document' is declining in importance, and companies promoting document management-type solutions will have to adjust in response," he speculates, hypothesizing a future in which "the Web or some other technology can effectively deliver what users need in some other form." After all, he argues, "they don't really care about documents, but about the information in them."
Stephen Etheridge, business consultant for Global Recall, concurs, noting that the document itself has become the least of the corporate user's worries. "Customers do not appear to be concerned about output issues," he says, "but about accessibility; if knowledge isn't accessible, it is useless."
Others disagree with this take on data output. Says Frappaolo, "The future of document management lies in two areas: (1) the organization and management of the underlying resource (i.e., the document) and (2) the deployment or leveraging of that resource. The management, though critical and necessary, will be seen as mundane or expected. It will happen in the background and users will forget it is there, but still rely on it to ensure access to quality information in a secure environment. The promise of the future--and that which will propel document management into the next millennium--is output."
storage versus distribution: the end justifies the means
While search, indexing, and retrieval capabilities are inherent to knowledge management on the input and organization side, a company's mission-critical business data will indeed be useless--or worse, lost--if it isn't effectively stored and distributed. And though the two functions may seem interchangeable, vendors hesitate to recommend solutions without first asking their customers to pinpoint what they intend to do with that data since the answer (in terms of product and medium) depends so heavily on a customer's specific needs.
"The core of every knowledge management application is managing the storage and retrieval of unstructured data," explains Dan Lucarini, vice president of marketing for Englewood, Colorado's Information Management Research (IMR). Users of his company's Alchemy line, he says, "are equally concerned with three issues. One, is the new storage platform as reliable and dependable as the one it replaced? Two, can everyone access the information? And finally, how secure is it?" The system they ultimately select, he continues, depends on what they intend to do with that information.
So what is the difference between storage and distribution, and what technologies are best suited to each? According to Steve Luster, director of marketing for Branford, Connecticut's Westbrook Technologies, knowledge managers must look at storage as a three-tiered process. "In the knowledge management world, we consider the choice of storage medium to be influenced by where the document is in its lifecycle, as well as the need for secure and/or redundant storage." This document lifecycle, Luster explains, centers on access frequency and information currency: "Typically, we see RAID systems used where massive amounts of information need to be accessed instantly, creating a scenario we call `online.' These same documents are then moved off to CD jukeboxes once they become less current or active, or when there is a noticeable delay between dates of access. This stage is known as `near-line.' Eventually, these documents are archived to WORM and tape, having achieved `far-line' status." In his view, then, the "best" storage medium depends heavily on which phase of the lifecycle a particular document is in.