Knowledge technologies in context
Knowledge technologies in context

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Knowledge technologies in context

3.6 Organisational memory systems continued

3.6.1 When we just want to forget (‘we're only human’)

Group memory systems might be counterproductive if they damage morale or prevent a team from moving on after a failure. Studies of software teams show that many commercial projects are cancelled before completion. This generates an intense pressure to work as hard as possible (so that maintaining group memory falls by the wayside) and, understandably, in many cultures if a project is regarded as a failure everyone wants to forget it as quickly as possible rather than analyse it for lessons learned or to record design rationale (Grudin, 1996). It is likely that this is the case in many other domains as well. However, the investment of knowledge in such projects, and the lessons learned, can be extremely valuable if they are recorded in an organisational memory system. We are thus faced with a very human obstacle: how can a project team be expected to document its failures?

Team memory might also be counterproductive or even threatening if it becomes ‘good for the organisation but not necessarily good for the individual’ (Conklin and Burgess Yakemovic, 1991, p. 389). Consider the following issues that the authors raise in relation to recognising failure:

  • Who does the routine work of knowledge capture?

  • How is politically or personally sensitive information handled?

  • How are staff who were honest enough to document their wrong turns and bad ideas rewarded and protected?

  • What prevents a group memory system from being used against staff in the event of litigation stemming from a poor decision?

Table 3.2 A framework for assessing and planning a computer-supported group memory system

Setup of group memory systemInformation inputInformation formal isationInformation retrieval
DefinitionWhat are the steps to be taken to set this group up with the group memory system tool?What do the various users of the system need to do to enter information into the system?What mechanisms are available to formalise the information? What can users do to help the system's automatic formalisation features work better?Who is expected to retrieve information from this system (group members, external groups, future groups)? What mechanisms are in place for this retrieval?
Assumptions/ requirementsWhat are we assuming about the group as outlined in their profile? What work procedures are required for users to begin using this system? What are the expectations of their current work practices?What is assumed about the user community in order for them to enter information into the system? Training, motivational factors, time constraints, group size, etc. should be consideredWhat is assumed about the user community in order for them to enhance the formalisation of information in the system? Training, motivational factors, time constraints, group size, etc. should be consideredWhat does the user need to do to retrieve formalised data? What is the user willing to do to retrieve that information? Learning a new language, information overload issues are some things to consider
CostsWhat is the cost associated with setting up the system? Training, system setup, hardware requirements, etc. should be consideredWhat cost is associated with inputting information into the system? Things outside the existing work practices of the users should be included (extra time required, software, etc.)What cost is associated with formalising information in the system? Things outside the existing work practices of the users should be included (extra time required, software, etc.)What cost is associated with retrieving information from the system? Information overload, lost information, learning a new language, learning new query mechanisms, etc. should be included
BenefitsWhat direct/indirect benefits does the group obtain from setting up this system? Defining a group's structure, learning new ways of communicating, solving problems, etc. should be includedWhat immediate benefit does the user gain by inputting information into the system? Consistency in communication, gaining a deeper understanding of a problem, learning a new way to communicate, etc. should be includedWhat immediate benefit do users who formalise information obtain? Clearer understanding of group tasks and goals, clearer group understanding from using structured language, etc. should be includedWhat benefit do users obtain from searching for and finding information in the system? What value does the memory have to group members and non-group members? What value is there in looking for information?
(Source: based on Zimmerman and Selvin, 1997, p.419)

In summary, while building organisational memory is one of the most widely proclaimed goals of knowledge management, co-designing the technologies and human dynamics (both cognitive and social) to enable meaningful capture, indexing and reuse is far from straightforward.

We turn now to specific examples of technology which can support varieties of knowledge management processes. These are related to the different kinds of knowledge presented at the start of this section – meta-knowledge, tacit knowledge and explicit knowledge, and their complex interplay.


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