Manage knowledge... or lose 'memory'

Quick!Quick! Capture that knowledge! It's hard to believe that, in the information age, one of our biggest problems may be the loss of vital information. Three factors converge: Information—more importantly knowledge—that has been patiently collected through years of experience will be lost because engineers do not have the time, or opportunity, to pass on their knowledge to the ne...

03/01/2006


Quick!Quick! Capture that knowledge! It's hard to believe that, in the information age, one of our biggest problems may be the loss of vital information. Three factors converge:

  • Fewer manufacturing professionals;

  • Far flung work sites; and

  • A large percentage of manufacturing professionals nearing retirement.

Information—more importantly knowledge—that has been patiently collected through years of experience will be lost because engineers do not have the time, or opportunity, to pass on their knowledge to the next generation of engineers. Information loss is especially critical for control systems. These systems' lifetimes often are decades long; when they must be upgraded or replaced, the engineers who originally worked with them are often absent—retired or with another company.

Knowledge has been captured on paper; however, it is expensive to maintain, difficult to share, and slow to search. The IT industry has been working on capturing knowledge, developing solutions called Knowledge Management Systems (KMS)—the tools that capture, organize, and store individuals' knowledge, enabling easy sharing of the information. KMS is also used to formally record and distribute information learned through experience.

For much of control engineering, KMS suffers from flaws. KMS is usually implemented company-wide, with large budgets and staff and an equally sizable effort to capture company knowledge. They structure captured information, sometimes requiring knowledge to be forced into predefined structures.

This is a case where the old can learn from the young. As students know, a key knowledge resource on the Web is Wikipedia ( www.wikipedia.org ). On-line encyclopedia Wikipedia is built through public collaboration—anyone can add to it or edit existing information. It is the ultimate open repository of public knowledge, collectively managed and maintained by the public at large. Because anyone can edit any article, misleading, out of date, or incorrect information can be entered. However, because experts monitor contributions, and there are many readers, incorrect material is usually quickly found and corrected.

Students use it to find, rapidly, otherwise obscure pieces of knowledge that usually have links to more detailed sources and references. A key point is that Wikipedia is a knowledge management tool for unstructured knowledge, and it is based on technologies that can be applied to control system knowledge.

Wikipedia is based on a Wiki Web system; wiki means "quick" in Hawaiian, and Wiki Web sites are often called wikiwikis (or quick-quick). The first Wiki was created in 1994 for collaboratively publishing software patterns on the Web. Wiki Web sites' simple editing process allows non-programmers to easily add information and links. A typical Wiki has thousands of linked pages and search methods. Authors can setup tracking so that they are informed when changes are made, allowing for analysis and review. All changes are saved and previous versions of pages are available on-line.

Engineering groups can setup their own Wikis as inexpensive knowledge repositories. Wikis do not require any predefined configuration for knowledge; the structure grows as information is entered. Wikis can provide engineers an easy way to record experiences and events, and for others to find and extend that knowledge. There are many open-source Wiki tools available, based on PHP, Java, and Python Web-programming languages.

See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_wiki_software for a list of Wiki choices and www.answers.com/topic/comparison-of-wiki-software for a comparison. An internal Wiki can become a valuable tool for a collaborative knowledge base. If other information, such as internal documents, vendor manuals, reports, and studies, are available on-line, then they can be easily linked into the Wiki site.


Author Information

Dennis Brandl, dbrandl@brlconsulting.com , is the president of BR&L Consulting, a consulting firm focusing on manufacturing IT solutions, based in Cary, N.C.




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