There is an old saying that "everything old is new again," and that often relates to technology.

Knowledge management was a major business trend from 1988-1998. For a decade, it was one of the most discussed topics among leaders of many industries and written about in multiple books and scholarly articles.

Twenty years later, KM is top-of-mind again in 2018, as industry’s ongoing digital transformation has spurred demand for a better way to manage information.

The KM of 1988-1998 entailed complex filing, cataloging and tracking systems. One of the earliest successful products in this category was Lotus Notes (currently known as IBM Notes). It provided tools for threaded discussions, document sharing and organization-wide uniform email.

Many systems of that time were available out-of-the-box, but plenty of companies sprung for bespoke solutions as well. Corporate librarians and executive assistants were pressed into hours of training.

Like many solutions from that time, these KM systems included some flashy digital touches, but nearly all had to be organized by someone sitting down at a keyboard and tediously layering on metadata by hand.

Many of these systems failed, perhaps because they were extremely inconvenient to use and often only those closest to the systems knew how to navigate them. Thus, as talent moved on, so did vital irreplaceable corporate knowledge. Maintaining these overloaded systems became overwhelming and, more often than not, they were abandoned.

In Search of Knowledge Management 2.0

Now KM is on the rise again. A quick search of Indeed.com returns more than 5,000 job postings around the country with the key phrase “knowledge management.”

It appears that, if you stick around in business, you’ll see old concepts transforming into new approaches. Maybe it wasn’t that the KM bubble burst. Maybe KM was born too soon, and it had to await its moment. Has that moment come?

There is a solid reason to think so. In a provocative op-ed in the Wall Street Journal (June 24, 2015) Thomas Davenport —who in 1999 co-authored a foundational book for the KM movement of that time—mentioned that “KM isn’t dead, but it’s gasping for breath.”

One of the reasons behind his conclusion is the dominance of Microsoft’s SharePoint, over and against other KM technology solutions. He also pointed out that “KM never incorporated knowledge derived from data and analytics,” but that newly available solutions, such as IBM Watson, have re-ignited interest in KM, this time under the rubric of big data and analytics.

The Potential of KM, Realized

Ultimately, 2018’s KM is more than an inverse of the 1998 model. Today’s solutions are digital, with a dash of paper support when needed.

Fully digital KM systems offer features that previous iterations were not capable of. A cloud-based enterprise knowledge system means no dusty rows of metal filing cabinets and no teetering stacks of paper. Automated metadata tagging and instant document recall with the click of a mouse make the user-experience of today’s KM nearly effortless.

For instance, IBM Watson seeks to understand a question in detail and return a precise answer instead of a list of documents containing a keyword query. The systems of today, as a whole, are intuitive, simple to learn, easy to adopt and cost-effective —resulting in KM systems that are the very opposite of siloed and difficult to maintain.

Data and information integrators, as well as knowledge engineering software providers, are now uniquely positioned to add value in this contemporary enterprise knowledge environment. By helping publishers maximize the value of the digital assets available across their organization, KM today is well positioned to move the knowledge supply chain along more efficiently than ever before.

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