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70 Information Resources Management Journal, 19(1), 70-83, January-March 2006
Copyright © 2006, Idea Group Inc. Copying or distributing in print or electronic forms without written permission of Idea Group Inc.is prohibited.
Breaking the Knowledge AcquisitionBottleneck Through ConversationalKnowledge Management
Christian Wagner, City University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong,and Claremont Graduate University, USA
 Much of today’s organizational knowledge still exists outside of formal information repositoriesand often only in people’s heads. While organizations are eager to capture this knowledge,existing acquisition methods are not up to the task. Neither traditional artificial intelligence-based approaches nor more recent, less-structured knowledge management techniques haveovercome the knowledge acquisition challenges. This article investigates knowledge acquisitionbottlenecks and proposes the use of collaborative, conversational knowledge management toremove them. The article demonstrates the opportunity for more effective knowledge acquisitionthrough the application of the principles of Bazaar style, open-source development. The articleintroduces wikis as software that enables this type of knowledge acquisition. It empiricallyanalyzes the Wikipedia to produce evidence for the feasibility and effectiveness of the proposed approach.Keywords:knowledge acquisition; knowledge artifacts; knowledge management; opensource development; wiki
Ever since the development of artificialintelligence (AI) and expert systems, there hasbeen the promise of capturing an organization’sknowledge on a large scale and making it avail-able to the entire organization. Unfortunately,these promises did not materialize (Buchanan& Smith, 1988; Ullman, 1989). While there havebeen several early success stories, such asAmerican Express’ Credit Advisor or Digital’sExpert Configurer (XCON), attempts to acquirethe broad knowledge of organizations havebeen less fruitful. More than a decade later, adecidedly optimistic survey by Frappaolo andWilson (2003) found that no more than 32% of the knowledge was available in computerizedform. Obviously, knowledge acquisition is achallenge. How can we extract more of the ex-
Information Resources Management Journal, 19(1), 70-83, January-March 2006 71
Copyright © 2006, Idea Group Inc. Copying or distributing in print or electronic forms without written permission of Idea Group Inc.is prohibited.
isting knowledge from organizational sources,especially from people? And how can we man-age the maintenance so as to assure that thestored knowledge is accurate and up-to-date?Discovering answers to these questions is im-portant for organizations as information work becomes knowledge work, thus requiringknowledge to support non-routine decisionmaking (Drucker, 1993, 1999). It is similarly im-portant for organizations whose corporate por-tals that were set up years ago increasingly arebecoming dated and stale (Newcombe, 2000).Furthermore, it is important for organizations inthe business of creating knowledge assets whoare faced with increased costs of knowledgecreation, shorter knowledge life cycles, and in-creased knowledge obsolescence.Seeking a solution to the problems of or-ganizational knowledge acquisition, the articlemakes the following argument. First, it intro-duces previous approaches to knowledge ac-quisition, identifies four limitations, and of-fers evidence for these limitations. The articlethen refers to Bazaar style (software) devel-opment (Raymond, 2001) as a potential direc-tion for knowledge asset creation. It then ex-plains the concept of conversational knowl-edge management and advocates wiki tech-nology and the “wiki way” (Leuf &Cunningham, 2001) as a possible approach tousing Bazaar-style methods in conversationalknowledge management. An empirical analy-sis of the viability and effectiveness of theapproach follows. The article ends with impli-cations and conclusions about the future of conversational knowledge management.
Approaches toKnowledge Acquisition
Organizations that try to acquire organi-zational knowledge formally (based on artificialintelligence methods) have relatively few avail-able alternatives. For application areas with largeamounts of transaction data, data mining caninduce rules from that data. Data mining solu-tions work well for high-volume applicationssuch as credit approval. Even then, the knowl-edge creation effort is highly resource-inten-sive (Lee, 2001). When insufficient data vol-umes thwart data mining efforts, the acquisi-tion activity has to elicit knowledge directlyfrom experts as rules and facts or similar formalrepresentations. This should be done under theguidance of knowledge engineers trained inknowledge elicitation, formalization, and repre-sentation. Yet a knowledge engineer’s produc-tivity is limited to hundreds of rules per year fordevelopment and maintenance (Sviokla, 1990;Turban & Aronson, 2000). This productivitylevel may be acceptable for high value-addedprojects but limits the broad applicability of theapproach. Smaller projects have attempted torely on capturing knowledge without knowl-edge engineers, relying on end-user develop-ment. The latter has not been very successful(Wagner, 2000, 2003). Wagner found end-userexpert systems often to be poorly structured,incomplete, highly coupled, and thus, difficultto maintain. Artificial intelligence-based meth-ods thus are facing considerable applicabilityconstraints. Consequently, organizationalknowledge management efforts have soughtto capture knowledge in less formal ways; forinstance, by extending document managementand groupware systems into knowledge man-agement systems (Davenport & Prusak, 1998;Holsapple & Joshi, 2002) in part through betterindexing, search engines, and linking.Yet challenges remain. When organiza-tions try to make sense out of large volumes of documents in their document management sys-tems, they usually need search engines, textmining, and automatic indexing tools, resultingin an expensive solution with limited success(Bygstad, 2003). Furthermore, this approach iswell suited only for relatively stable and cen-tralized knowledge bases. Users of such knowl-edge bases often encounter information over-load, irrelevant responses, or no response toqueries. Alternatively, organizations might useexpert reports and harvest expert knowledge tocapture the methods used by domain experts(Snyder & Wilson, 1998). Again, this method
72 Information Resources Management Journal, 19(1), 70-83, January-March 2006
Copyright © 2006, Idea Group Inc. Copying or distributing in print or electronic forms without written permission of Idea Group Inc.is prohibited.
often is limited to niche applications, requiresconsiderable effort, and still faces knowledgemaintenance difficulties (Malhotra, 2000). Othersolutions, such as corporate controlled portals,can quickly suffer from outdated knowledgeand lack of maintainability (Newcombe, 2000).
Knowledge Acquisition Bottleneck
In summary, we can describe the knowl-edge acquisition bottleneck as follows (Wagner,2000; Waterman, 1986):
Narrow bandwidth.
The channels that existto convert organizational knowledge fromits source (either experts, documents, ortransactions) are relatively narrow.
Acquisition latency.
The slow speed of ac-quisition frequently is accompanied by a de-lay between the time when knowledge (orthe underlying data) is created and whenthe acquired knowledge becomes availableto be shared.
Knowledge inaccuracy.
Experts make mis-takes and so do data mining technologies(finding spurious relationships). Further-more, maintenance can introduce inaccura-cies or inconsistencies into previously cor-rect knowledge bases.
Maintenance trap.
As the knowledge in theknowledge base grows, so does the require-ment for maintenance. Furthermore, previ-ous updates that were made with insuffi-cient care and foresight (“hacks”) will accu-mulate and render future maintenance in-creasingly more difficult (Land, 2002).Given these challenges, it appears thatthere are few opportunities for breaking theknowledge acquisition bottleneck. The nextsection will propose one possible remedy.
One area that has offered lessons for thesuccessful creation of knowledge assets is soft-ware development, and specifically open sourcesoftware development by distributed teams of volunteers. Open source projects engage soft-ware developers, wherever they may reside, andhave them collaboratively develop the knowl-edge asset (the software). Surprisingly, thisactivity takes place with little centralized man-agement. Raymond (2001) characterized thisapproach to software development as the
 Ba- zaar 
style in contrast to the traditional
style of development. Cathedral is a meta-phor for the development of a large monolithicartifact through a structured and lengthy de-velopment process. Fundamental to the ca-thedral style approach is that source code isonly widely available at release dates with ac-cess restricted to a few developers betweenrelease dates. Bazaar style development, how-ever, occurs over the Internet in constant pub-lic view. Raymond identified principles of thisdevelopment style that challenge the assump-tion that large and complex software assetsneed to be built via an
a priori
, centralized ap-proach. Overall, four themes guide this devel-opment approach, which can be characterizedas follows: (1) design simplicity of the artifact,(2) team work, (3) frequent creation of a visiblework product, and (4) development as an on-going conversation. This section introduces aframework of open source (software) develop-ment, identifies its benefits, and derives les-sons about the applicability for knowledge as-sets other than software.
Open Source Software Development
Open source software development, asdescribed, for instance, by Raymond (2001),Benkler (2002), and Markus, et al. (2000), relieson several factors to achieve success (and thus,performance of the knowledge creation effort).Key success factors (see Figure 1) consist of asuitable artifact, a skilled and motivated teamof volunteer users and developers, a lean andtransparent development process, and light-weight but effective governance. Added to thisis an enabling factor; namely, an appropriatetechnology infrastructure, which, for instance,permits frequent releases, accommodates vot-ing mechanisms to govern the community, orenables fast and reliable version management,

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