Recently, Ralph Malbrough reminded me of a blast from the past due to the SNL40* special that aired with great fanfare. It occurred to Ralph that the ebb and flow of the show over the years included premature reports of its demise, not unlike that of knowledge management. Pondering about that comparison a bit caused me to think about it: is that true? Even though knowledge management has proven to be a survivor over the past two decades, is it in danger of being voted off the island any time soon?
Furthermore, I thought about the “demise” of central computing as yet another parallel to the idea of knowledge management, taking me down this memory lane…
I go as far back IBM 3270s. Anyone go even further into the dustbin of history with their computing experience? That fantastic “machine” allowed me to interact with a mysterious behemoth, hidden from public view known as a mainframe. In reality, it was nothing more than a “dumb terminal” which allowed me access a centralized and controlled corporate brain. It was the earliest of client-server models whereby I couldn’t do anything without the express consent of the brain.
Then along came the ubiquitous PC (my first was a so-called, 35-lb portable, the Columbia VP Portable) and the world of computing for me changed overnight. I could now compute entirely on my own, without permission of the brain, and moreover, could do it without the brain even knowing that I was doing it! What power and freedom that gave! Better yet, I could share with my colleagues anything I wanted at any time (albeit only at 88kb at a time), and still without the watchful eye of the brain any the wiser. The disadvantage? While the brain couldn’t see me, neither could I see what the brain had—and it had a lot. More importantly, the most valuable stuff was still in the corporate brain.
Apparently, the brain fought back however, and soon the fat client-server model was born whereby I could use my PC to pick the brain! Even so, it was an attempt by the brain to wield control over my knowledge and so for the time being, there was a condition of détente known as MAD (mutually assured documentation). Some time later, the internet as we know it was born and new rules written regarding knowledge creation and sharing changing the balance of power yet again. Now, the single PC user could connect to all kinds of knowledge (some not so savory), again without the help of the brain. In fact, with the power of the internet, the PC could literally be more powerful than the brain, at least when it came to wide access to knowledge if not depth.
Fast forward to today and peer-to-peer sharing is now the norm via social networks, meaning that once again, we can create all kinds of havoc under the radar of the brain (at least that’s the brain’s take on our sharing). This time the brain has proven to be even more resourceful than the last: first with corporate social networks (yammer and its ilk know what you said), and then the giant brain, the “cloud.” Chromebook anyone? “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”
What does any of this have to do with the death of knowledge management? I haven’t the faintest, but it has been a fond trip for me back to the days when I used my K+E Deci-Lon sliderule—with 28 scales making it the most powerful handheld computing device you could use in 1974—and it could blow your calculations clean off.
P.S. Feeling nostalgic, I recently acquired two Deci-Lon sliderules, finding out that I have no clue how to use 26 of the 28 scales anymore.
*Saturday Night Live celebrating 40 years on air, a revolutionary idea in its day—live TV—until you remember that all TV was broadcast live when first commercialized.
You can connect with Jim Lee on Twitter @KM_dude.