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Intranets as Knowledge Management Systems
basic concepts and definitions

Steven L. Telleen, Ph.D.

(This article is also available in Serbo-Croatian @,
thanks to Jovana Milutinovich)

Many people are beginning to see their intranets becoming powerful knowledge management systems. However, as with the early days of any new approach, there is an intuitive acceptance of the phenomenon accompanied by much confusion around the concepts involved. Additionally, in fields like knowledge management and organizational learning, there are existing perceptions and terms that may inhibit as much as help our understanding of the new environment.  This is why  it is useful to start with the definitions and concepts, since these are the tools we humans use to understand and communicate.  Here are some definitional concepts you might find useful in thinking about the subject. 

First, "Learning" is a verb. It is the process of finding (or inventing) patterns from chaos. If we start with an ordered understanding we can't learn, because we already "know" the patterns and relationships. Thus, when people complain about the "chaos" and lack of structure in a free-form intranet, think of it not as a problem, but as a fertile base of  materials for organizational learning. 

Knowledge, on the other hand, is the repository of what we already have learned. It may be explicit, as in books or intranet content, or it may be implicit as in relationships and processes that may not be documented. 

Learning and knowledge are not organizational functions. They happen to and through individual people. An organization only "learns" when an individual is able to impart the understanding to or change the behavior of the organization as a whole. Thus a learning organization must encourage and support this type of effect from its individual learners. 

If the individual's learning, insights or experience are explicitly captured in a way they can be shared with the rest of the organization, then it becomes part of the organizational knowledge base. Note, that unlike a personal knowledge base, an organizational knowledge base requires explicitly capturing the information for it to be shared. 

Knowledge and learning are iterative. When the potential "learner" confronts an unkown (conceptually chaotic) situation, there are three ways in which he can learn. 

1. He can search the knowledge base to see if the situation has been encountered before and the answer already is known. If it is, he either learns it from the organizational knowledge base, or recalls it from his own (mental) knowledge base. 

2. He can find several "related" but not exact cricumstances and derive an answer by recombining pieces of knowledge from the knowledge base, creating new knowledge in the process. 

3. He can generate new knowledge, usually by creating action and noting the response. When we do this in a structured way, we call it scientific research. When we do it in a random way, we call it  hit and miss or accident. Note that we call the understanding that we get from our failures "wisdom." Wisdom comes from experience, not from an organizational knowledge base. 

Note that this is completely analagous to that chemical information system, genetics. The DNA is the stored knowledge base, sexual reproduction is recombination, and mutation is generating accidental knowledge. I suspect that in learning organizations, as in biology, the largest source of learning is recombination. 

An intranet relates to learning organizations in the following way. The intranet is not only a powerful communication medium but also a knowledge base. It has advantages over previous digital knowledge bases in that it more easily captures and handles unstructured and implicit knowledge (in contrast, DBMSs  require very structured schemas to be effective). 

The ways in which we learn can help us understand what kinds of roles, skills, tools and processes we need to develop to help individuals in the organization find the knowledge already available, move the organization to act on their learning, and capture the experiences in the organizational knowledge base with the minimum effort. A separate paper on agents discusses some of the relevant knowledge management and learning roles likely to emerge around intranets. 

The oldest human knowledge base is culture. The knowledge is stored as stories and rituals. When looking at intranets as knowledge bases, it might be useful to look at how culture acts as a modifiable (learning)  knowledge management system as it interacts with the individuals that make it up. 

Last modified July 9, 1997

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