Tuesday, 3 December 2013

K, KM, KO: in Search of Definitions

After 25 years of service on standards committees I suffer from a personal dread of definitions. As chairman of some ISO and BSI working groups, I’ve generally had the job of cajoling all parties into consensus. And the definitions clause has generally proven the most divisive, packed with minutiae to excite the sensibilities of the experts. It usually locks the committee up for weeks of argument. (Sometimes for years – if tough decisions get conveniently postponed while the rest of the work proceeds.)

But the question of definitions seemed not so easy to evade at the NetIKX 21st birthday celebrations last week. Billed as “Knowledge organization past present and future”, the meeting had two speakers, one talking about “The 7 Ages of IKM in Organizations”, and the other describing knowledge management (KM) issues in an important public sector organization. The title of the second presentation was “The Organisation of Organisational Knowledge”. Despite much use of the K word and the O word, neither of the talks was about what I would describe as Knowledge Organization (KO). Would a productive debate be stimulated by querying the use of “KO” in the meeting title, I wondered, or would the fruitless grinding of axes tear us to pieces?
Thankfully my dilemma was resolved as the meeting began with a clear acknowledgement from the chair that KM, rather than KO, would be the main focus. Both speakers provided entertaining and stimulating presentations. The first, David Skyrme, even supplied his own preferred definition of KM, along the lines of “the explicit and systematic management of vital knowledge and its associated procedures of creation, gathering, organizing, diffusion, use and exploitation in pursuit of organizational objectives”.

But the question of definitions was not completely banished. Plainly NetIKX has listened to umpteen variations on the definitions of “knowledge” and “knowledge management” during its 21 years. In the syndicate sessions after the tea break our table was explicitly charged with discussing definitions. One participant proffered a statement concocted for a recent client, deliberately customized to show the relevance of KM to the client’s own business context. The statement emphasized the functional benefits of KM, rather than attempting an academic definition.
My own reaction to the challenge was to applaud the public sector ploy of side-stepping the issue by bringing “Information Management” and “Knowledge Management” under one umbrella labelled “IKM”. While there’s a legitimate place for pursuing a specialism such as records management, web design, knowledge engineering, etc., there is also a lot to be said for blurring the boundaries so that we work together effectively to achieve common objectives. The study of a specialist subject can help each of us become really proficient in a chosen area, but today’s workplace often requires teamwork, with inputs from diverse backgrounds. Furthermore, the content of each specialism is constantly evolving, especially as we need to master emerging technologies. I therefore favour professional definitions that are inclusive rather than divisive, and are hospitable to change.

A definition of “Knowledge Organization” too should be inclusive, in my view. As an applied subject rather than a fundamental science, KO should be open to new developments and approaches. But I was relieved when I left the NetIKX meeting without being challenged to put a definition on the table! In 2008 the ISKO (International Society for Knowledge Organization) journal Knowledge Organization devoted the whole of a special issue (see vol 35, no 2-3) to exploration of a definition of this subject field. Despite much debate and discussion, in 2013 the journal still describes its scope in half a page of text rather than a tight definition. The ISKO website, however, provides a link to a useful Wikipedia article, which outlines half a dozen different approaches to KO and lets the reader choose. Is this the best line to take?  Or should we come off the fence and provide a one-liner?  Should we first set up an event for members to come and debate their favourite definitions?  Why not add your own views immediately by commenting on this blog?
Stella Dextre Clarke

Chair, ISKO UK


Leonard Will said...

Is "knowlege organization" just the current term for what used to be called "cataloguing, classification and indexing" of information resources? I think these terms are more readily understood, and they are what I use when I am asked to explain what KO means.

Alan Gilchrist said...

I may misquote, but I think Wittgenstein said "If you want to know what a word means look to its use". The current situation in the free-for-all in the "information arena" is that people coin and use terminology intended to attract followers and customers. Consequently, we are left wondering what lies behind the sometimes rather grandiose terminology. In my view, one can neither manage nor organize knowledge - only the individual recipient of a communication can do that. So, whereas I have sympathy with Leonard Will's comment, I fear we are stuck with our grandiose terminology.

Bob Bater said...

With Stella's preference for inclusive definitions in mind, I am inclined to risk the possible wrath of some by building upon Leonard's proposal, and to claim that ontologies and ontology building should also be included in the scope of KO. Thesauri too (assuming they are not already included under 'Cat&Class'), also the multiplicity of tools and semantic markup systems such as OWL, SKOS, RDF and Topic Maps.

Stella has suggested elsewhere that we might address this topic at one of our events in 2014. I am rather in favour; what do others think?