Some thoughts on knowledge management, content management and single sourcing

Subject: Some thoughts on knowledge management, content management and single sourcing
From: "Bill Hall" <bill -dot- hall -at- hotkey -dot- net -dot- au>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Sat, 16 Mar 2002 11:31:04 +1100

Richard asked,

"Could someone help me clarify exactly what "knowledge management" is and
how it relates to technical writing and technical writers?"

Andrew Plato weighed in with his usually pithy BS (to use Andrew's own term)
about the failings of a trendy discipline. And like most of his comments, he
brings to the surface aspects of real issues that tech writers need to think
about - even if we don't end up agreeing with Andrew's often jaundiced point
of view.

""It means "know your stuff." Save your dough and stay home and read a book.
These meaningless seminars are just ego-showcases sprinkled with buzzword
ambushes. Knowledge Management is nothing more that some stupid consultant
craze telling firms to do what they already should be doing - documenting
products and technologies. "

Given that I have recently been lumbered with coordinating a professional
consultant's project to perform a "knowledge audit" across all staff in all
divisions of my company and that I am also currently building a
collaborative relationship with Monash University's Knowledge Management
Laboratory in the School of Information Management and Systems
(;;, I believe that I can provide some
informed commentary to the question and to Andrew's BS.

My point of view with regard to what follows is probably unique in that my
academic training began with 7 1/2 years of university education before I
gained my BS degree in zoology included 4 years of physics (I flunked out as
a physics major). I then went on to earn my PhD in evolutionary biology,
systematics and cytogenetics from Harvard University in 1973. Following a
research and teaching career in biology I discovered microcomputers, and for
the last 20 years I have been employed as a technical writer, documentation
manager and documentation systems analyst in computer literacy education, a
commercial software house, a bank's IS department, and for the last 12 years
for Australia's largest defence contractor.

The first and most troublesome issue relating to the discipline of
"knowledge management" begins with the term "knowledge" itself. To resolve a
problem I had with reviews of my attempts to write up my thesis research, I
ended up spending 2 years postdoctoral research to understand the theory of
knowledge as it applied to evolutionary biology. The difficulties inherent
in this issue are currently having a major impact on the whole US
educational system via the controversy between creationists and
evolutionists and the continuing creationist attacks on scientific

I currently have nearly completed two major works on the theory of knowledge
as it applies to the current revolutions in the way we assemble, manage and
deliver technical knowledge.

The first is a multimedia Web book, "Application Holy Wars or a New
Reformation: A fugue on the Theory of Knowledge". This was born directly
from expanding the issues and arguments underlying the holy war Andrew
Plato, I and a number of others fought in the Techwr-l forum in late 2000.
Searching the year 2000 archive for the string [\"real value\" \"content
management\"] will pull up most of the threads. The war was real, resulting
in several fatalities - i.e., bannings from the forum and at least one
threat of legal action (neither applied to Andrew or myself). Depending on
how many requests I get, I will be very happy to e-mail copies of the
current draft to anyone who wants to read it - and also promises to give me
some feedback on whether the arguments and hyperlinking work from a reader's
point of view. At this stage I am not looking for any detailed editing, and
the last 10-15% remains to be written, but the argument is essentially
complete up to the middle of my section on knowledge management technologies
and I need to know whether it works at all.

The second is a more typical academic paper focussing specifically on the
knowledge management discipline itself, under the title "Meaning and Value
of "Knowledge" in Organisational Knowledge Management". This tackles some of
the same issues Andrew raised from my somewhat similarly jaundiced view that
some of the practitioners of the knowledge management discipline don't know
what they are talking about. Again, on the same conditions as for
Application Holy Wars, I will be happy to e-mail copies of my present draft
to anyone willing to commit themselves to provide me with some reader

Basically, there are two paradigms of knowledge - one based in the
discipline of evolutionary epistemology building on Karl Popper's concepts
of Objective Knowledge, and the other much more subjective one based on
Michael Polany's Personal Knowledge. Both philosophers were born as
Austro-Hungarian Jews, converted to Christianity, took university positions
in Berlin and Vienna, and were forced to flee Nazism to the English-speaking
world before completing their key works in England in the 1950's as
Professors of Philosophy in leading universities. They fought their own holy
war over the theory of knowledge, and to this day the two schools of
philosophy built on their respective ideas rarely even admit that the other

A general theory of knowledge - especially as it applies to organisational
knowledge - needs to be informed by both schools.

Most tech writers and scientists take a strongly Popperian approach to what
they write about (whether they know it or not). Possibly by chance, the
founders of the knowledge management discipline explicitly based their
foundation theory on Polany's concepts of personal (tacit) knowledge, and
consequently most of what proponents of the knowledge management discipline
say or write seems like complete hogwash to tech writers. However the issues
they address are real and very important to large organizations, and much of
what they offer in terms of solutions is valuable to these same large
organizations. However, for tech writers to take advantage of the
opportunities offered by the KM movement, we need to understand the
paradigmatic differences between our discipline and the KM discipline before
we can effectively communicate how we can help in the endeavours.


Now to summarise my thoughts about technical writing and the management of
content and knowledge:

All of us manage our own knowledge of the world in our heads. The role of
technical writers (and scientists) is to assemble, assimilate, distil, and
organise information about the world or specific products into terms other
people can understand and record this in documents other people can use as
justified belief.

Where the knowledge is being created, captured and delivered for individual
use or in small organizations all that is needed to preserve the knowledge
and make it available for others to use is good technical writing.

However, organizations have an existence extending beyond the membership of
any single individual in the organization. As the size of the organization
grows, the problems coordinating and communicating organisational learning
and knowledge grow exponentially (or is it factorially?) along with the
number of possible interpersonal connections.

While knowledge management may be a joke for Andrew Plato and the
organizations he normally contracts to, it is a major economic issue for
large organizations employing thousands of people. Because organizations
exist independently from their members, they need to capture and preserve
learning and knowledge held in individual heads beyond the life of the
individuals' memberships in the organization. Technical writers know how to
capture and record the knowledge, but large organizations have immense
problems establishing culture, technologies and processes to facilitate
preserving and managing this knowledge in forms that other people in the
organization can find and use where and when it is needed.

The owners of my organization have recognised this problem and are beginning
to come to grips with how important knowledge is to the success of their
business of managing large engineering projects. Outside consultants have a
major role as independent advisors because they are not involved in the
typical corporate infighting and internecine politics that cloud
organisational and process reengineering.

Anyway, going back the original question of what does knowledge management
mean to technical writers, at least in large organizations, it should mean a
lot of new and important job opportunities if we work to understand the very
real needs large organizations have and learn to talk to people who are
successfully selling the knowledge management concepts to senior executives.
A combination of the tech writing and KM paradigms offers far more real
value to organizations than either does alone.

We are doing exactly this in my organization. I'm educating the KM
consultants at the same time I'm learning a great deal from them. The
opportunities to be gained from this kind of collaboration are immense if
you can swing them.

Bill Hall
Information is not knowledge
Knowledge is not wisdom
Wisdom is not truth
Truth is not beauty
Beauty is not love
Love is not music
Music is THE BEST
(Zappa - Packard Goose)
Turn on your computer's sound system, turn up the volume and click - probably the most perfect fugue ever
written - also very well synthesised via this page.

Check it out! Get some cool freebies when you buy RoboHelp! You'll receive
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Consulting. This special offers expires March 29, 2002.

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