Systems must change to help knowledge management

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Knowledge management has become a well-used term but people disagree on what it actually means and what is required to achieve it, as Iain Dunbar of Softlink Europe reveals

Information and knowledge are often cited as the new global currency. However, there is considerable confusion in the library market about the term 'knowledge management' and how it applies to libraries. Information can be defined as 'knowledge acquired through experience or study' or 'meaning given to data, by the way that it is interpreted'. Knowledge can be defined as 'the facts or experiences known by a person or group of people'; 'specific information about a subject'; 'informed learning'; or 'familiarity gained by experience or learning'.

Iain Dunbar

The overlaps in these definitions mean that the words 'information' and 'knowledge' are often used interchangeably, as are the terms 'information management' and 'knowledge management'. And sometimes these terms are turned directly into job titles - 'information manager' or 'knowledge manager'. Each organisation is unique in how 'it defines information, how it perceives the importance of information, how it processes information, and how it uses information' (Karim, 2004) and information professionals should have a big impact on their firm's perception of information and knowledge.

UK-based library management software company Softlink Europe felt that the real meanings of 'information management' and 'knowledge management' needed to be better understood in order to provide the best tools to help 'information managers' and 'knowledge managers' do their jobs. With this in mind, we commissioned research to ask the experts - information professionals from the charity, health and legal sectors. We wanted to go beyond the jargon to find out what these terms really mean to them and their users.

Not surprisingly, definitions of knowledge management offered by those polled were varied. Some believed it applies only to information internal to the organisation and others felt that it should also apply to external information such as journals. The definitions given included: 'getting the right information to the right people at the right time' and 'taking all the information we have and ordering it and cataloguing it to make it easily accessible'.

The research process

Our research, The Role of Librarians in Knowledge Management, was carried out during March and April 2006 with organisations in England, Scotland and Wales, including private sector companies, charities, the National Health Service and universities. A total of 35 organisations took part in the telephone research with interviews lasting an average of 30 minutes each. Ten respondents were from each of the health and charity sectors and 15 from the legal sector.

Respondents described their jobs as being responsible for managing 'all of the library catalogue and the systems it's kept on'; 'the electronic resources subscribed to'; and 'the entire organisation's electronic and paper records'. These resources included alerting services, annual reviews, archives, books, DVDs, government papers, information packs, internal documents, journals, learning packs, the library management system, minutes of meetings, newsletters, online catalogues, online news sites, reports, subscription databases of articles and videos. In other words, information professionals need to know how to access all areas of information within their organisation, not just that within the library itself.

We already know that for a firm to possess sustainable competitive advantage it must constantly monitor several information sources simultaneously (Saxby et al, 2002) and this is increasingly a task that the information professionals are involved in. Librarians can be invaluable as advisors and educators on information and knowledge, the way that it works and can be captured and how it should be shared. Organisations could make more use of the skills of information professionals in areas such as helping to develop their business strategy planning and gathering competitive intelligence.

Having the right tools

So, this research highlights the valuable role that librarians and information professionals play within their organisations - but what sorts of tools do they need to do these jobs?

Although the term 'knowledge management' is often used to describe old, well-worked principles of communication within organisations, we believe that it does imply something new. There is a new level of difficulty being experienced by organisations that have access to an unprecedented amount of information, from an unprecedented number of sources. If there was a problem historically in gathering information that was relevant to the organisation, collating it and disseminating it to those who need it, that problem is greater now and approaching the 'impossible'.

The people tasked with finding a solution are usually the librarians or resource centre managers and those people need appropriate tools. The best tool is not a conventional library management system, but something rather more flexible. From some angles, it may still look like a library management system and it will certainly have to perform many of the same obvious functions but, at heart, it needs to be a different and more powerful animal.

If we are to 'manage knowledge' we have to understand our organisation and its needs and identify relevant sources of information. We then have to plug into and interrogate those sources, in an organised manner, preferably without having to interrogate them all individually. The knowledge manager also has to gather and collate the incoming information, according to sensible criteria (relevant to the organisation) and make the data available to those for whom it is valuable/useful/vital.

Dealing with diverse sources

This might sound straightforward in theory but in reality it is much more complicated: information sources are diverse in both location and accessibility to the layman. They could, for example, include databases that have been developed by individuals in small corners of the organisation. In such situations, cataloguing is time-consuming and is not carried out according to sensible standards. There is also unlikely to be a strategy for making that information available to the members as a whole. At the other end of the spectrum, the information sources are likely to include freely-available online databases. In theory these are easily accessible but, when a search is made using an internet search engine, the response is overwhelming and few have the patience to scroll beyond the second page.

Information gathering and analysis is a huge task and (Smith 2001) 'major challenges are to select the “right” information from numerous sources and transform it into useful knowledge'. The challenge is identifying which 20 per cent of the available information will be most useful to the organisation.

Breaking information down into relevant and manageable chunks for their users is one of the great skills of librarians. However, many have not yet realised that there are systems out there - such as Softlink's Liberty3 - which allow them to carry out a federated search for information outside their organisation and network file search for information within the organisation, without breaking the bank. These types of searches bring information from the whole organisation into one search environment so that one search can cover library information along with files such as PDFs, text files and Word documents located anywhere on a company's intranet.

Information professionals such as Angela Hall at Royal Liverpool Hospital's library use Softlink's Liberty3 system to manage information from a wide range of sources

Looking ahead

Beyond these facilities, what do information and knowledge managers want in the future? Our research asked the blue-sky question: 'If you had unlimited funds, what would your ideal information gathering and dissemination tool include?' The responses included an 'intranet that offered one search across all our databases' and the 'ability to search on free text, but have detailed thesaurus and be able to collect relevant material.' Portability was a key request from the information professionals in the medical field so that a doctor on a ward could access information from anywhere. An alternative to keywords and subject headings was also requested for situations where there is 'woolly' knowledge or a gap where people 'don't know what they don't know'. Another blue-sky wish was to avoid a reliance on a high level of IT knowledge as it excludes people.

Solving the knowledge-management challenge is not something that library or knowledge-management systems specialists can solve overnight. They have to create a system into which data can be added quickly and easily (by hand and by sourcing the information from other software). It must be able to search its own databases and external databases and be flexible and adaptable to the varied sorts of 'resource' possessed and/or sought by the organisation. It must also be able to be integrated with other information systems operated by the company and grow with the firm as its needs evolve.

Iain Dunbar is a director of Softlink Europe. To receive a copy of the research, email or visit


[1] KARIM, Nor Shahriza Abdul. The link between environmental scanning (ES) and organizational information behaviour: implications for research and the role of information professionals. Library Review, 53(7), 2004, 356.

[2] SAXBY, Carl L; PARKER, Kevin R; NITSE, Philip S; DISHMAN, Paul L. Environmental scanning and organizational culture. Marketing Intelligence & Planning, 20(1), 2002, 28.

[3] SMITH, Elizabeth. The Role of Tacit and Explicit Knowledge in the Workplace. Journal of Knowledge Management, 5(4), 2001, 311.