Managing the web of knowledge technology

19 Feb 2003

“Knowledge management is an oxymoron: I don’t think you can manage knowledge.” This might seem like a strange thing for the director of the AIB Centre for Information and Knowledge Management at the University of Limerick to say, but Dr Fergal McGrath’s (pictured) remark is an acknowledgement of the very difficult task he faces in trying to measure something as esoteric and personal as knowledge.

In a production-based economy the physical output from a factory is the valuable commodity, whereas in a knowledge society, ideas or intellectual property are the most highly prized assets. The only problem is that it is much more difficult to measure and evaluate intellectual property than physical outputs.

One of the current research projects undertaken by McGrath and his 14-strong team of post-graduate researchers is aimed at shedding some light on this shadowy area. Central to the project is an analysis of how everyday technology such as PCs and workstations are used to create knowledge.

A related project is looking at the development of knowledge management systems.

“We have very database-centric systems and some information systems,” McGrath explains. “But the whole question is what type of systems we need for mobile flexible workforces that need to share ideas,” he adds.

While the technology industry is continually coming out with innovative new systems, the question McGrath’s team is asking is whether that technology always fits with the needs of the mobile worker.

Another research strand centres on the concept of social network analysis. “This is an old sociological technique that maps how society evolves and the relationships between social groupings,” says McGrath.

He adds: “What we’re looking to do is map the evolution of these relationships informally.”

A related area of study concerns the development of communications systems within agrarian communities. The viability of B2B (business to business) networks in farming is one topic being explored here.

One teaching technique used at the centre involves the concept of ‘managed destruction’. “The lesson for us is that we must manage the destruction of what is gone and move on with the technology,” says McGrath. “You need to know that if you’re going to introduce something new, something has to give. Equally you’ve got to manage the creative part. We see a huge onslaught of new technologies – the question is: which of those do we bring in and how do we manage its introduction and the retirement of what it’s replacing?”

A number of research projects at the centre are funded by blue-chip companies with a particular interest in the area. A project exploring the viability of utility computing is being sponsored by IBM while the ESB is backing B2B networks in farming study. Overall, AIB has committed €500,000 in funding to the centre over a five-year period.

McGrath arrived at the study of knowledge management through a circuitous commercial and academic route. Having graduated as an electronic engineer in 1979, he worked as an engineer in Australia and the UK. In 1982 he founded a technology design company, of which he was managing director for ten years. He completed his MBA in 1989 followed by a doctorate in 1999/2000 at Henley Management College in the UK.

The term ‘knowledge management’ often causes furrows of incomprehension among listeners or else total indifference.
To McGrath, however, the emergence of the concept is simply a reflection of the information-laden world we live in and the questions this raises about how to manage it.

“We see a transition from an industrial base to this indefinable information or knowledge society. All we know is that there’s lots of information and lots of access points. We need a lot of it as an input to do the work. But what technologies are there to enable it to be created, shared and used?” he asks.

“For us, knowledge is within the person and knowledge management is about how technology will enable the knowledge worker to perform and what is the best structure and means to allow that to happen,” he argues.

The main thing that companies need to take on board, he adds, is that the nature of learning has to change to keep in step with the new information-rich world. The relatively recent phenomenon of the ‘chief learning officer’ position now seen in many US corporations will, he feels, cross the Atlantic and become a feature of the business world here too – at least temporarily until continuous learning gets firmly embedded within corporate culture.

“To survive in this economy you’re going to have to become a continuous learner,” he concludes.