When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

04 November 2006

Perils of KM

I think it's safe to say that, in my 20+ years in Information Technology, I have been involved in my share of Knowledge Management (KM) initiatives.

(For the uninitiated, "knowledge management" is the capture, collection, organization, and storage of information within an organization, together with a mechanism for allowing this information to be shared easily. And yes, the World Wide Web can be viewed as a giant, collective experiment in KM, if you'd like to think of it that way; a more precise example would be something like Wikipedia.)

KM, as practiced in the current day, is an ambitious and very necessary effort to tackle a very real problem: how do you get key information to the people who need it?

But KM efforts fall down, again and again, because of this simple but universal truth:

Machines are Dumb.

And for your KM effort to be successful, you need someone Smart (usually several someones, a whole team of human editors) reading Every. Single. Thing. that goes into your KM database, keeping it current and accurate, and making sure that bad or undesirable information is not captured.

Otherwise, you wind up with situations like this:
Last March, the federal government set up a Web site to make public a vast archive of Iraqi documents captured during the war. The Bush administration did so under pressure from Congressional Republicans who had said they hoped to “leverage the Internet” to find new evidence of the prewar dangers posed by Saddam Hussein.

But in recent weeks, the site has posted some documents that weapons experts say are a danger themselves: detailed accounts of Iraq’s secret nuclear research before the 1991 Persian Gulf war. The documents, the experts say, constitute a basic guide to building an atom bomb.

Last night, the government shut down the Web site after The New York Times asked about complaints from weapons experts and arms-control officials. A spokesman for the director of national intelligence said access to the site had been suspended “pending a review to ensure its content is appropriate for public viewing.”

Officials of the International Atomic Energy Agency, fearing that the information could help states like Iran develop nuclear arms, had privately protested last week to the American ambassador to the agency, according to European diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity. One diplomat said the agency’s technical experts “were shocked” at the public disclosures.

U.S. Web Archive Is Said to Reveal a Nuclear Primer (New York Times, November 3, 2006)
This is, of course, the kind of risk you run when you publicly post tens of thousands of documents in a language (Arabic) that the vast majority of your knowledge managers do not speak or read.

The irony is--if I have understood the news story correctly--that the documents that caused the current furor were UN reports that were written and distributed in English.


Update (and bump), 11/4: Chap adds some interesting observations over at his place.

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