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The bi-focal vision of knowledge management: the knowledge map as a corrective lens. (Tips for Building Knowledge Infrastructures).

One of the most basic SKI polarities is "Think Globally, Act Locally" (Sivan & Rosen, 2001b), which addresses the essential requirement for any SKI to score short-term successes while simultaneously building the larger, more long-range perspective. There are many other instances where bi-focal glasses are indispensable, and perhaps one of the main conclusions of this discussion is that dualities are inherent to SKI.

Understanding this dual focus is the first requirement; no less important, however, is the need for a tool to balance it, much along the lines of bi-focal corrective lenses. In this regard, we would like to propose the geographical map that we introduced in one of the previews articles as a suitable corrective lens (Sivan & Rosen, 2001a).

Figure 2 portrays the map we proposed of a knowledge city that is an interface for A Typical Organization's (ATO) SKI (Sivan & Rosen, 2001a). We suggested that the value of the interface lies in its presentation as an inviting, logical, and consistent metaphor, where the very nature of the metaphor encourages users to work the knowledge infrastructure and creates a new kind of knowledge discourse within the organization. The division of the map into organizational, departmental, and personal districts offers some immediate categorization of knowledge, based on the organizational level to which it belongs.

In the following paragraphs we will see how the map emerges as specifically empowered to offer the required bi-or multi-focal perspective.


An essay in TIME Magazine from a few years ago dwells on the imperative of knowing how to sift what needs to be known from the mass of irrelevant statistics and other knowledge. It cautions as follows: "If you can t do some plumbing to restore thinking's normal flow, [stat clots] accumulate like cholesterol up there in the grey matter's byway, causing serious mind blocks" (Usher, 1999).

A classic SKI challenge is to balance the big picture of knowledge ("I need to know about everything") with the need to focus on specific details ("I need to know about the sales deals").

Within its categorized division of knowledge chunks into knowledge houses (Sivan, 2000), knowledge and its related activities (e.g., discussion groups, Frequently Asked Questions, links to applications, and so on) are assigned to specific units. The map's division into districts offers clear guidelines for instructing workers what they need to know, and why.

Knowledge houses that appear m the uppermost corporate district contain "must-know" knowledge on an organizational-wide scale. Houses in the central departmental district contain knowledge deemed necessary by the departmental manager. The houses within a departmental district may not be identical for all departmental workers; depending on specific jobs within the department, there will be houses that some departmental members need and others not. Significant, though, is that at least two thirds of an organizational worker's knowledge map is populated by knowledge units that s/he needs for his/her basic work. Determined by those higher up in the organizational hierarchy, they constitute all s/he needs to know. With proper management of knowledge services, including additions, triages, updates, and excisions, and with proper measures to ensure that the ones who need to know receive the knowledge (for example, through electronic signatures), what you need to know is a highly attainable goal.

More complicated yet no less critical is the insurance that what you do not need to know will not be intermingled freely with necessary knowledge. It is far easier to sustain a policy of mass inclusion than to sift and extract necessary knowledge from superfluous knowledge. This prioritization, however, is a fundamental role of the knowledge house leaders who accept essential knowledge and important supplementary knowledge to the service but relegate non-essential knowledge to its appropriate insignificance within the knowledge service, if not outright to the recycle bin.

There is, however, an additional dimension of wanting certain knowledge, even if it is not what you need to know. Herein lies the value of the personal district. The lower district of the map, designated as the user's personal district, is intended for what the user wants to know, beyond the knowledge essential for organizational work. Its situation in the lower third of the map marks it as inessential, perhaps even "nice to have," but clearly not necessary. When the knowledge of the lower third is no longer relevant or of interest, it is easily removed from the interface. The map as such affords the dual focus on the necessity of knowledge.


Knowledge Management is both a process and a product. It is first of all a process, generating changes in the way people think about knowledge and use knowledge personally and intra-organizationally. Indeed, this process is an ongoing one, not imparted or completed overnight; sharing knowledge with colleagues, or contributing to the infrastructure, evolves over time and doesn't "just happen." Rather, there are ways of thinking about knowledge and working with knowledge that evolve over time, while an additional part of the KM process is seeing other people manage their knowledge. Moreover, knowledge itself is dynamic, and hence both it and one's approach to it change. If the process-nature of knowledge management dissipates, the practice is essentially defunct.

At the same time, knowledge management is also a product. It is a product of much training and development. As a system of working with knowledge, it is an implemented practice that, if not itself quite a tangible entity, is still the end result of many organizational entities interacting. Thus, not only are there technological products with which to practice KM; knowledge management, working through a Standard Knowledge Infrastructure is the proven method which knowledge-based organizations use to reap the utmost from the knowledge available to them.

There is no better image than a map for a discipline that is simultaneously process and product. As product, the value of the map is clear: it is a static picture of a geographical location, with symbols of roads, streets, houses, and so on. The components of the area themselves are stationary and together the picture they present is a fixed drawing. At the same time, the map depicts an area that is given to change. A neighborhood that does not evolve will neither thrive nor survive. Change can assume many forms: new streets are added, street names change, stores come and go, and populations shift. In areas less populated, topographies change, landscapes evolve, ecological systems develop. No matter in what form, change is part of what defines a geographical area, be it a natural evolutionary shift or a more artificial, industrial transformation. As the geographical area changes, the map it represents changes as well. Thus, as much as a map is a product of a natural landscape or of an urban project, it repres ents a process of dynamism and change.


A recent article in the Harvard Business Review suggests that a "T management style" is the most worthwhile means of promoting knowledge sharing and knowledge transfer. Looking at the experience of BP-Amoco, the authors suggest that a T is essentially two-directional image, whereby the horizontal portion reflects the free movement of knowledge across the organization, while the vertical axis reflects an intensive intra-departmental effort (Hansen and Von Oetinger, 2001).

The image of the T is not limited to. the interpretation the authors offer. Indeed, the two axes could well represent other organizational components - the vertical axis for the organizational hierarchy and the horizontal one for management levels, for example. The precise translation of the image is less important than the spirit of the image: simultaneous two (or multi-) directional knowledge flow. Indeed, this is crucial for knowledge management, for knowledge activities do not consistently proceed in the same direction, between the same people, at the same pace all the time. Rather, the reverse is true: the optimal example of knowledge flow is up and down, right and left, back and forth.

A brief survey of any organization will reinforce the concept. Different organizations vary as to how much of the organizational knowledge flows top down, but no organization will survive without some leadership and guidance from higher ranks. At the same time, a true knowledge organization thrives best when knowledge is also traded freely across the board, and is generated by those further down the hierarchical tree as well, from middle management to sales reps to telemarketing personnel. The knowledge that is gleaned out in the field is invaluable, and must flow back to the organization and up the ladder. Indeed, one of the major assets of the knowledge management initiative at Buckman Labs was how much knowledge was gathered and generated by its sales force, knowledge that then helped adjust and redefine company processes and strategy (Fulmer, 1999).

This need for a simultaneous bi-directional movement of knowledge is inherent within a map. Be it through latitude and longitude measurements, or north-south and east-west orientations, a geographical map relies on plotting points according to perpendicular axes. By using the geographical map as both a physical interface and a metaphorical framework, a standard knowledge infrastructure asserts that knowledge flow is necessarily multi-directional, potentially encompassing or at least reaching all points on the knowledge map.


Assigning hearsay its proper value is a common challenge. Although we have all been instructed innumerable times not to believe everything we hear or to take the news with a grain of salt (and the list of relevant cliches could easily be extended), it is hard to remain unmoved by rumors. Moreover, it is foolhardy to dismiss all rumors outright, as they are usually grounded in some measure of fact or reality. Indeed, they may in fact comprise the softer, tacit knowledge that lack canonical authority yet are invaluable to the organization. What then is accepted, and what is dismissed?

The neighborhood gossip has always been something of an institution, in folklore and in reality alike. Knowledge Management recognizes and values its equivalent of the neighborhood gossip, and the SKI knows what to do with this cultural institution by channeling the rumors, gossip, and undercurrents to the proper addresses. As a navigational tool, the map interface is particularly able to do this. Figure 3 focuses on a single district from the map, in this case, a Sales and Marketing district.

The areas to the left of the curved blue line ("beyond the river"), to the immediate right of the river and dominating the central portion of the district, and to the far right of the district are sub-divisions that allow for different classifications of formal and informal knowledge. Or, different types of icons may symbolize different knowledge forms (tall buildings for formal knowledge, smaller, open structures for tacit knowledge, perhaps). Certainly the potential of the map for different knowledge types is abundant.


The dualities discussed in this article do not exhaust the list of polarities within the SKI that the map successfully manages. Others might be mentioned: promoting the individual and promoting the organization, or local and generic SKI needs, for example--all of which are accommodated successfully by the map interface. Indeed, they serve as examples of the map's overall adaptability. The geographical map offers a flexible yet powerful interface that at once represents and encourages knowledge management activities. It empowers the multi-focal vision that is inherent within knowledge management.


Fulmer, W.E. (1999). Buckman Laboratories. Harvard Business Review, no. 800160.

Hansen, M.T. & Von Oetinger, B. (2001). Introducing T-shaped managers: Knowledge management's next generation, Harvard Business Review, no. 6463.

Keats, J. (1978). The Poems of John Keats. Ed. J. Stillinger. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Sivan, Y. Y. (2000). Knowledge services: Knowledge units that benefit knowledge users. WebNet Journal: Internet Technologies, Applications, & Issues, 2(2).

Sivan, Y. (2001), Nine keys to a knowledge infrastructure: A proposed analytical framework for organizational knowledge management. Program on Information Resources Policy at Harvard University.

Sivan Y. & Rosen, J. (2001a). Introducing the knowledge city: A proposed metaphor for a knowledge interface. WebNet Journal: Internet Technologies, Applications, & Issues, 3(3).

Sivan Y. & Rosen, J. (2001b). Knowledge management: Bridging the promise and the reality, WebNet Journal: Internet Technologies, Applications, & Issues, 3(2).

Usher, R. (1999, August 23). Give the brain a break. TIME, p. 51.

The Geographical Map Interface - United States Design Patent No. DES. 419,191

The Geographical Map Interface - United States Utility Patent (Approved Notice of Allowance) No. 09/274,952


RELATED ARTICLE: About Knowledge Management (KM)

The focus of this set of notes is how organizations plan, implement and evaluate their knowledge infrastructure--what I have called in previous notes--the Standard Knowledge Infrastructure (SKI). On purpose, I'm not talking directly about "learning." I ignore "learning" because I believe it should be embedded into doing. In this knowledge age, at least for me, there is little sense in pure "learning." This "merge of learning and doing" is going to be the topic of one of my next notes. In fact, this merge between doing and learning is a typical example to a bi-focal view, which is the topic of this note. Bi-focal view is the ability to look at an issue simultaneously with two different, often conflicting, views.

By way of introduction to the issue, consider how the SKI must balance theoretical knowledge with practical implementation. True, nearly all organizations must straddle the fence in this regard, and what "should work" may not be synonymous with what "does work," but what "does work" may not be as effective as what "might work." So too with any SKI initiative. Although many theoretical principles of the SKI are common to all organizations, the optimal way for one organization to manage its knowledge may well differ radically from the most effective SKI practices of a second organization. Thus, the Nine Keys framework I devised for SKI is designed to serve as a theoretical framework with which to embark on a SKI project (Sivan, 2001).

This column explores a dual perspective with regard to several central SKI polarities and proposes a corrective lens to manage this duality.


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Author:Rosen, Judith
Publication:International Journal on E-Learning
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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