Where are the People in KM/IA?

Forrester have just put out an overview report on the challenges facing enterprise Information Architecture (it’s free, bless them, but you’ll need to have an account or register for a free one to get it). Quite apart from the solid way that they establish IA as part of a rigourous information management approach, it also casts surprising light on the world of knowledge management and why it’s so difficult: if you do a cut-and-replace between “IA” and “KM” you will get some engagingly good insights and ideas:

“It’s a political quagmire. [KM]IA discussions require a horizontal approach to traditionally vertically managed resources. On top of this, business areas tend to feel a strong sense of ownership of the data in their mission-critical applications, and they’re suspicious that any discussions about data usage with “outsiders” could lead to a loss of control.

A very good relationship between IT and the business is a prerequisite for [KM]IA. Overcoming the political difficulties is challenging enough; succeeding when there is a poor track record of communication and trust between IT and the business is even more unlikely.

[KM]IA can look like a boil-the-ocean effort. The data and content mess facing most large organizations is enormous, and any architects who consider getting the enterprise in order quickly recognizes that they will retire before the task can be completed — no matter how young they are.”

Read on in the report for some insightful advice about “street-level-strategy” building to address these challenges – just as good advice for KM as for IA.

There’s one big gap which is not addressed: take a look at the high level view of the enterprise information architecture (shown below) from the report.

What struck me was what was missing: where are the human beings in the framework? “Real” architects never show their models or visualisations without putting in stick figures to show how it works with people in them. Why don’t we? Apparently, this report, unabashedly technical in orientation, has ruffled a few feathers in the more human-oriented IA camps, not least for quoting a reference to them as “Web weenies”.

There’s a reason why user experience folks call themselves information architects, and they’re not going to be expelled from the academy because they don’t fit within a logical array. The parallels with KM sharpen this question for us as well: where does the interface with people’s desires, aspirations, frustrations and needs come into what we do? Where does it fit within our KM frameworks?

Thanks to Nick Berry for highlighting this via the TaxoCop forum.


4 Comments so far

Bill Proudfit

The article is very good for explaining something that can seem difficult and ethereal.  The advice is good.  The charts are clear.  I’ll keep this and use it for sure. 

Without a strong people-focus most technology fails.  This is frequently talked and written about but technologists still shy away from making people’s behaviors around information at the centre of a solution.  Bringing people into the equation is where KM can offer its best value. 

Your advice to replace KM for IA highlights something I noted at the end of the article where Forrester has bios of their experts.  Their resident Information & Knowledge Management expert Leslie Owens does enterprise search, classification, and controlled vocabularies.  It seems like a very narrow remit for KM.  This is a good example of KM being squeezed into a nice narrow and defined box by technologists.  We need to make sure this does not happen. 

However, I don’t want to seem to be criticizing Leslie Owens.  I saw on the TaxoCoP discussion from Nick Berry that at the last Taxonomy bootcamp Leslie ... “exhorted us to take our taxonomy efforts beyond the web”.  This is great advice and is knowledge management at its best.

Posted on January 30, 2010 at 02:15 PM | Comment permalink

Your question is good and I would go even further. “How does it effect their ordinary every day activities, not just their aspirations etc.” That is where the rubber hits the road. Most such projects fail because after change workshops finish, people invariably go back to their desks and continue to do exactly what they were doing before.
They know they can wait out change and that it will founder if they are patient. Just as the IA knows it will never be finished in their life time, let alone their time with the organisation.
It interesting that the underlying assumption that large organisation should have an enterprise wide architecture goes unchallenged. I haven’t had time to read the report but my view is that innovative thinking is required in this area so that it is not an unsurmountable challenge. How are the lessons from social media being incorporated into IA?
P.S Your post makes me think that the term Knowledge Architect is a better term than Knowledge Management i.e. don’t try to manage the knowledge, architect the foundations for it to manage itself.

Posted on February 02, 2010 at 02:48 AM | Comment permalink

My personal views only.

The EA concept is intended as a solution to an enterprise business problem, but often (and the chart on p.6 supports this), there is no enterprise-wide concept of the business that is owned by the senior business managers. If they see EA as an IT thing and business architecture and information architecture are not solutions owned by the business, but just part of a problem that is delegated to IT to solve, then the smell of impending doom is very strong.

The people aspects seem to be implied througout EA but don’t seem to be explicitly addressed anywhere (not just in IA). This works OK where the person is not central to the process (ie they work in highly structured transactional processes with little discretion) but works less well with business solutions where the person has wide discretion about how to proceed.

The Marchand Information Orientation thinking can add to IA. Despite some shortcomings it pays attention to information values and behaviours and fits pretty smoothly with IM (or KM) frameworks.

Posted on February 02, 2010 at 11:22 AM | Comment permalink

Bill Proudfit

Many thanks for the reference to Donald Marchand’s Information Orientation.  I found this article.  Donald A. Marchand • William J. Kettinger • John D. Rollins, Information Orientation: People, Technology and the Bottom Line, Sloan Management Review, p. 69-80, Summer 2000. 

They describe a model combining ITP, Information Technology Practices, IMP, Information Management Practices and IBV, Information Behaviors and Values along with 9 guidelines on how to make it work.  The examples drawn from the ‘good’ bank and the ‘bad’ bank are useful.  Clearly the ‘good’ bank succeeded because it hadn’t left information management to the IT department and it made information usage a key measure of performance.

Posted on February 02, 2010 at 07:50 PM | Comment permalink

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