Small Group Reflection – Knowledge Management

Okay, I know. We didn’t have a small group activity for this class. I did want to note, however, that I enjoyed the conversation about Josh’s workplace predicament. In work and in life, it’s easy to say one thing and expect another. There’s a tendency among management (and people, in general) to define their goal as one thing because it sounds nice when they actually have completely different priorities – perhaps less magnanimous but just as valid. They talk about wanting community because they know that people show up for community. What they actually want are people to show up at their website to get downloads and ask technical questions and maybe even see what software is coming next. They definitely DON’T want dissension and criticism, an important part of community.

As we become more and more responsible for high level responsibilities in our careers, it will become very necessary that we observe, interpret, and communicate with those around us. All the skills that we’ve been hearing about since birth (it seems) – listening, paying attention, thinking first, talking last – are vital to our effectiveness in whatever role we find ourselves.

Class Reflection – Managing Knowledge

“Is knowledge management possible? It depends on how you define knowledge. When you define knowledge more as information, management is much more feasible.”

That’s what I have written at the top of my notes from our class discussion. In fact, I think the question “is knowledge management possible?” goes to the very heart of our identities as current/future librarians.

I have some other notes written down that have not yet gelled into a discourse and so I’ll add them here and then comment. Hopefully, by the end of this, I’ll be able to answer the question that I first wrote during class, “What the hell does this mean to us?”

One thing that I found interesting was that the phrase “knowledge management” came from the business world and has the implication of external control. Maybe it’s this implication that really cheeses people off. When we think abstractly about knowledge, we want to give it the nutrients it needs to flourish. The idea that someone else may determine in which direction it grows and how big it will get can be very irritating. We also tend to think of knowledge as something that is much more unpredictable and uncontrollable. Heat from a fire is knowledge. Heat from an electric element is knowledge managed. There is something much more visceral about the unmanaged knowledge. We like the sense of freedom.

At the same time, if the development of knowledge does not address the needs of a community (small or large), it serves no purpose. I think that is probably a big reason that “community of practice” has become such a catchphrase among those who would seek to manage knowledge. These communities tend to address a need and serve to corral and develop knowledge that is vital to that community. I also have written down “negotiation of meaning – careful navigation along with give & take between community members as a means to develop identity.” Not only do communities of practice develop the knowledge required by its members, they also help to create languages and develop identity. The creation of language and development of identity establishes the credibility of that community with larger communities. This seems to be a pretty critical aspect of communities of practice as knowledge development pools.

The analogy of communities of practice as a type of farm seems pretty apt. You have a farm whose purpose is to sustain a group by producing and distributing a crop (or crops). In the case of communities of practice, the purpose of the community is to provide for the knowledge based needs of a group of people united by a common something by producing and distributing more knowledge about that something. The main goal is to provide “food” for the farm family or knowledge for the community members. At this point, it is a subsistence farm. When, however, the crop becomes larger than the needs of the group or more lucrative as a commodity than a food source, it can be harvested and sold outside of the community. In the same way, a farmer may choose to focus on developing one crop that is more lucrative rather than a kitchen garden that only serves to benefit his family as a food source rather than a source of income.

Communities of practice can be a way to manage knowledge in much the same way that a farmer manages a farm. He provides a place and a purpose – soil and crop production. He kills the weeds and kills the bugs. He harvests the crops, and then finds a way to make money from them. A “knowledge manager” provides a place and a purpose – the workplace (or something else) and the development of knowledge surrounding something relatively specific (Xerox copier maintenance). He harvests knowledge and then finds a way to apply that knowledge in a way that represents investment in the company (tangible or abstract). It’s important to note that neither a farm nor a community of practice is a one-off endeavor. Farms should not produce for only one season and cannot produce only one type of crop. Communities of practice do not exist only to figure out the solution to one problem (that’s what teams are for) and cannot produce only knowledge defined within a certain range. Farmers that try to kill everything that might adversely affect a crop end up doing irreparable damage to the land, their crops, and their reputations. Managers who try to stifle all criticism in their pursuit of perfection also stifle creativity and community and often undermine their own credibility and effectiveness.

Now, I feel like I need to answer the initial question. “What the hell does this mean to us?” I guess I should begin by saying that, in my mind, I define the us (at least for this) as “public librarians.” I know that others may think this is too narrow, but I find a vast difference between public librarians, school librarians, academic librarians, and special librarians (fodder for another fire). On the one hand, I think of our patrons as a community of practice. They are seeking knowledge of some sort. It is our responsibility to provide the mechanism for them to find and develop that knowledge. We need to be paying attention to what they’re asking for; we need to be facilitating conversation; and, in some ways, we need to be connecting community members. They may not even see themselves as part of a community. We, as much as we are information specialists, also need to be people specialists recognizing potential community members. On the other hand, public librarians are already members of a community of practice. We need to recognize the value in participating with our community. We must also recognize that we, as a whole, tend to be rules based and that this can stifle the creativity and effectiveness of a community. It’s important that we don’t let our individual proclivities be the weeds that choke out our knowledge development.

Small Group Reflection – Augmentation

For our activity, we actually did an exercise based on “activity theory.” Ironic, I thought. Our goal was to determine the components of an activity system. Briefly, our group chose to talk about TCP-IP as our tool. It was a fiasco, even though we had a good time creating our mess. Looking back, however, it seems to me that while we tend to give theories a lot of credence (rightly or wrongly), we may misunderstand their role from time to time. A lot of times, it seems that we give theories this power to explain everything. In fact, a theory, in my mind, should be more of a platform on which we can organize thought. In our group, we tried to use the activity theory to explain how TCP-IP is used to share information. Perhaps we would have been much better served to begin with our objective – what were we hoping to accomplish. I think the main failure in our system was that we were defining TCP-IP as a tool but were actually treating it as the objective.

From the activity, I learned that developing maps of an activity system can be useful but only when an objective is well defined. Although our map seemed to portray equal value for all the components (subject, tool, objective, rules, community, division of labor), the whole thing seems pretty pointless if there is no goal for the activity being described. During the class discussion, we also talked about another “activity system” (although I don’t think that’s what it’s called): H -> L A M -> T (human -> language, artifact, methodology -> training). This system seems to correspond, at least in part, to the top portion of the Scandinavian activity theory model (subject, tool, objective). I wonder if, had we used both theories, we might have been more successful in mapping our system.

Based on our activity, I also wondered how often the use of these maps has turned into huge management exercises that produced no useful or usable information. We were mapping what we knew. No new knowledge, in our case at least, was created. Instead, we found that we were struggling with knowledge that we already had, trying to make it conform to the model. Perhaps, this could be useful as a way to reimagine what we know – making more out of what we already have. I’m not sure. I think it’d actually require a lot more information and introspection to determine just what the role of activity theory and the mapping of activity systems means for us as librarians and, more generally, managers.

Class Reflection – Augmentation

I wasn’t sure how to begin this reflection. That fact is, augmentation, the use of tools to extend human capability, is what is often cited as a reason that humans aren’t mere animals. No other creature consistently recognizes that a deficiency exists in their own ability and then, often automatically, begins searching for something that will remove that deficiency. Once a person has found that “tool,” it will continue to extend (augment) the person’s ability until it breaks, is deemed inappropriate, or a more suitable replacement is found. As a relatively short person, this reminds me of working in my kitchen. I can easily reach the first shelf of the upper cabinets and can, somewhat less easily reach the second shelf. On my own, I have no chance of ever reaching the top shelf. When we first moved into our house, I immediately recognized the limits of my ability. On the first day, I found a sturdy box to extend my reach. Of course, no box is sturdy enough to consistently support 100+ pounds of shifting weight. That tool was deemed inappropriate (thankfully it didn’t break). On the second day, after more of our things were moved in, a dining room chair became the new thing that allowed me to reach heights that were not within my natural range. The chair worked well, for the most part, but was bulky to transport from dining room to kitchen, had somewhat slippery feet, and I was unenthusiastic about leaving footprints on its seat. Finally, my husband and I went to Lowe’s and purchased a folding step stool that could be housed in the kitchen. Now I have a tool that extends my reach even as it stays out of the way when not in use and does not compromise my safety. It also is dedicated fully to serving one purpose and so there are not scheduling conflicts (such as needing to access top shelves during dinner time).

During class, we talked about different types of relationships: synergistic (the sum is greater than the whole); symbiotic (each individual benefits); and, parasitic (one benefits to the other’s detriment). In my example, it’s pretty easy to recognize the synergistic relationship between myself and the stool. Without me, the stool is steel, rubber, and plastic leaning against a wall. With the stool, I am a girl only able to access the first two shelves. Together, we become a system that can do more than we can do separately. Our relationship is not symbiotic. Although I benefit, it would be silly to say that the stool benefits because that implies that it has needs. In the same way, the relationship between the stool and I cannot be parasitic because it or I would have to sacrifice something to the other. Both symbiotic and parasitic relationships tend to exist between beings; not between beings and objects or tools. Of course, humans have been known to treat other beings as tools. That, however, is another conversation altogether.

With traditional tools whose purpose is derived from their physical nature, it’s much easier to recognize how they can be used to augment human ability. With relatively new technologies, however, it can be a lot more ambiguous. In “Fitting the Artifact to the Person” by Donald Norman, the author talks about surface and internal representation and surface and internal artifacts. When I look at a ruler, I see that it is marked incrementally on its surface. I know that I can lay it next to two items and make assertions about their size relative to one another, to the ruler, and to a whole world of things that have been measured by the ruler. Without the ruler, I can only lay the two objects next to one another and say “bigger” or “smaller” (or “same”). Because the purpose of the ruler can be derived from its surface representation, the ruler is a surface artifact. Humans are very good at finding or developing these types of artifacts. I wonder if our excellence in this area has led to the seemingly pervasive that surface artifacts are rudimentary and, therefore, even juvenile.

It seems to be the trend to develop tools that have more internal than surface representation. Rather than a thermostat with a mercury vial to determine temperature and a dial to adjust the furnace up or down, we now have little plastic boxes with digital displays (I’m not sure if there’s a mercury vial in there, but I suspect not) that can be programmed to automatically adjust furnace and air conditional output. When I open an old thermostat, I see a vial and springs and understand the mechanism. I see temperature marks on the casing and a red arrow. When I open the new thermostat, I see wires and a circuit board. On the outside, I see a white casing, a small screen, and two buttons. Without the electricity to power the interface and deliver command prompts, it is useless to me. This internal representation seems to be a huge source of frustration to people.

Our culture is ruled by internal artifacts that rely on intuitive interfaces to be useful. We have computers, cell phones, televisions, and, yes, thermostats, that have the potential to augment our abilities. The key to these being successful tools, however, is, in my opinion, trust. With a surface artifact, we get it. We know its purpose and we can figure out how it works (although I’ve never figured out a slide rule….maybe someday). With an internal artifact, we only know what it says it can do. We have no idea what is causing it to do what it’s doing. In fact, what it’s doing is actually not at all what we’re looking for. We rely on engineers and scientists to translate for us. They make all those electric pulses into something, we hope, is what we’re looking for. And there it is…the issue of trust. With that ruler, I know that there is that piece of string and me. If I measure with that piece of string, only one thing can go wrong. I can misuse the string. With that electronic laser level/measurer, however, I have to figure out how to turn it on, make sure it has power, understand how to get a measurement, and trust that everyone who has worked on it to that point did their tasks correctly. If I trust that electronic tool, I can do a heck of a lot more than I could ever dream with a piece of string. At the same time, I am putting a lot more stock in other individuals than I would have to if I just carried a ball of twine in my pocket.

So, how does this relate to the field of librarianship? In an era of OPACs, integrated library systems, MARC records, not to mention public computers, scanners, copiers, flash drives, digital cameras, MP3 players, etc., we are the ones that have to make up for the deficiencies in those interfaces for a large number of internal artifacts. Although initial searches in OPACs often are pretty intuitive for patrons, the results are not. We have to teach and help navigate through the gobbledy gook that appears on the screen. Rather than just loaning an album out on vinyl, we now have to get those digital files through our firewalls using proprietary software onto whatever device a patron owns. If we are truly serious about providing equal access to information, we have to be experts in technology and people along with experts in information.

Small Group Reflection – Building a Thesaurus

For our small group activity, we had to take a list of subjects and create a thesaurus. According the ISO, a thesaurus must be composed of terms rather than phrases (which often characterized subject headings). Based on that standard and our assignment, one of the easiest parts of this exercise was determining what would be preferred and non-preferred terms in the thesaurus. Everything else about this assignment was hard. During the entire time, I kept thinking how much easier it would be to work alone or have a bunch of index cards with one subject heading on each one. That way we could manipulate our lists in a much more intuitive way. My reactions to the exercise made me realize just how much work creating a comprehensive thesaurus or subject heading index really is. Our list only consisted of about 30 items. LCSH contains hundreds of thousands of subject headings with relators. Despite all the criticism LCSH gets, one has to have a lot of respect for a list that works so well despite its obvious deficiencies and for the people who maintain it.

Class Reflection – Post Coordinate / Thesauri

More time dedicated to Mary Dykstra seems like a little bit of overkill, but what the heck. It was good to spend time talking about what really constitutes a thesaurus and the difference between LCSH and standard thesauri. Although LCSH is not a standard thesaurus (or even a nonstandard thesaurus), it’s easy to see how it could be confused in some regards. It’s also worth noting that even though standard thesaurus notation has been applied to LCSH in a nonconforming manner, the coding has improved subject access, at the very least, for many librarians. Although we can spend endless time debating the advantages and disadvantages of natural language vs. controlled vocabulary, there is no doubt that, as experts in librarianship, we already have experience with a controlled vocabulary that has begun to include the LCSH. It’s true that LCSH and its thesaural notation may have little use to a layman. To us as librarians, however, even a tool as flawed as LCSH can be rich resource.

Managing Knowledge – or not

I think we’ve pretty much established that the management of knowledge depends a lot on how you define knowledge. If you define knowledge as some type of commodity rather than a dynamic flow, management is much more plausible. It just makes sense that if you regard knowledge as a dynamic flow, any plan to manage it becomes much more involved.

Over the course of this semester, I’ve reached my own conclusion that knowledge is a dynamic thing that is dependent upon there being a knower, is completely unique to that knower, and cannot be managed in traditional classification schemes. After reading the article about Communities of Practice by Wenger and Snyder, however, I think it’s much more realistic to talk about managing the creation of knowledge. As knowledge is created, so can new data sets be gathered and new information made available. This information can, in turn, be managed in all those ways that information professionals espouse.

The concept of knowledge management has a certain air of micromanagement to it. Wenger talked about not being able to tug on a cornstalk to make it grow faster or yanking a marigold out of the ground to see if it has roots. In the same way, you can’t dictate the creation of knowledge. It just happens. You can add a little fertilizer, make sure there’s access to sunlight and water, and you can pull out the weeds. All of those things may make everything grow better but they don’t make anything grow.

I may be one of the few people that are actually glad that we can’t do everything. Knowledge gets to take its place with dark matter and the “theory of everything” and God; existing without our complete comprehension and outside our control.