Apples and Orangutans: Enterprise Search and Knowledge Management

This title by Mike Altendorf, in CIO Magazine, October 31, 2008, mystifies me, Search Will Outshine KM. I did a little poking around to discover who he is and found a similar statement by him back in September, Search is being implemented in enterprises as the new knowledge management and what’s coming down the line is the ability to mine the huge amount of untapped structured and unstructured data in the organisation.

Because I follow enterprise search for the Gilbane Group while maintaining a separate consulting practice in knowledge management, I am struggling with his conflation of the two terms or even the migration of one to the other. The search we talk about is a set of software technologies that retrieve content. I’m tired of the debate about the terminology “enterprise search” vs. “behind the firewall search.” I tell vendors and buyers that my focus is on software products supporting search executed within (or from outside looking in) the enterprise on content that originates from within the enterprise or that is collected by the enterprise. I don’t judge whether the product is for an exclusive domain, content type or audience, or whether it is deployed with the “intent” of finding and retrieving every last scrap of content lying around the enterprise. It never does nor will do the latter but if that is what an enterprise aspires to, theirs is a judgment call I might help them re-evaluate in consultation.

It is pretty clear that Mr. Altendorf is impressed with the potential for Fast and Microsoft so he knows they are firmly entrenched in the software business. But knowledge management (KM) is not now, nor has it ever been, a software product or even a suite of products. I will acknowledge that KM is a messy thing to talk about and the label means many things even to those of us who focus on it as a practice area. It clearly got derailed as a useful “discipline” of focus in the 90s when tool vendors decided to place their products into a new category called “knowledge management.”

It sounded so promising and useful, this idea of KM software that could just suck the brains out of experts and the business know-how of enterprises out of hidden and lurking content. We know better, we who try to refine the art of leveraging knowledge by assisting our clients with blending people and technology to establish workable business practices around knowledge assets. We bring together IT, business managers, librarians, content managers, taxonomists, archivists, and records managers to facilitate good communication among many types of stakeholders. We work to define how to apply behavioral business practices and tools to business problems. Understanding how a software product is helpful in processes, its potential applications, or to encourage usability standards are part of the knowledge manager’s toolkit. It is quite an art, the KM process of bringing tools together with knowledge assets (people and content) into a productive balance.

Search is one of the tools that can facilitate leveraging knowledge assets and help us find the experts who might share some “how-to” knowledge, but it is not, nor will it ever be a substitute for KM. You can check out these links to see how others line up on the definitions of KM: CIO introduction to KM and Wikipedia. Let’s not have the “KM is dead” discussion again!