Are we there yet?

A blog by Martin Erasmuson.

It’s a clichéd kids-line from B-Grade movies, or perhaps your own travel experience with children.  But a child, it is a fair question; you start, there is some travel time and ultimately you reach the destination.  But is such a question valid in the context of Knowledge Management Systems?  While I’ve never had a senior manager use those actual words ‘Are we there yet” I have heard several ask ‘when will it be finished’?

I’ve always found that a curious question.  There are not many aspects of our world that conform to this ‘Destination-Paradigm’; except perhaps some of those Hollywood Action Movies with a definite ‘start’, ‘middle’ and ‘end’, all wrapped up nicely in 90 minutes of action, drama, deception and twist where ultimately the bad guy dies, the hero gets the girl and they ride off into the sunset to live happily ever-after as the credits roll.  Nice, neat, that’s how life should be; and we pretend it is.  If only.

Everything is a work-in-progress; things being born/created/built, and other things dying/being dismantled/demolished.  Certainly some milestones, like those commemorated by plaques in building foyers, ‘Opened by His Worship Mayor no-one-remembers’ and at the time no doubt accompanied by ribbons, a photographer and a brass-band; but ultimately the building is demolished, the plaque goes to the museum and it all becomes just another historical footnote. 

I’ll get this line out of the way now: ‘the journey is the destination’ for two reasons: A) everyone could see it coming, and B) well, it’s true; at least regards Knowledge Management Systems.  Every organization I’ve ever worked in or for had a (typically) eclectic collection of different architectures and applications with a bunch of dedicated folk tasked with keeping the virtual-cogs turning.  They also have (typically) an eclectic bunch of business-plans; proposals for a bunch of new stuff to be built/created, and occasionally other stuff to be dismantled/demolished.   Important plans, usually accompanied by sticky-buns, drinks and back-slapping when a new application goes live.  But I’ve also learned that today’s achievement is tomorrow’s ego trip.  Like the plaque on the building, just another application that will one day be decommissioned, merely another milestone in an evolving organization, in an evolving sector, in an evolving world.

So, is it all pointless?  Far from it.  Those historical buildings formed an important part of the social and business infrastructure for the communities and environments they supported.  Real people doing real things.  The point is, the building wasn’t hanging in space, an end in and of itself but was part of a wider community and infrastructure.  It is easy to get caught up in today’s achievement, forgetting, as Isaac Newton put it that we are “standing on the shoulders of giants."  The capability and functionality of today’s technology can be intoxicating but also very distracting and quickly obsolete.  Just another shiny pebble to get distracted by or as Isaac put it “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” 

It is easy to get caught up in the technology, the applications, the shiny thing, and less about the business outcomes those applications were designed to deliver, and even less about the data to support those business outcomes.  Like those buildings consigned to history, applications will come and go but data can and does have a life far beyond that of the applications that created it, even that of the people who managed it.  I had several work engagements with the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA), the agency created by the New Zealand Government to coordinate the response and recovery efforts to the devastating earthquakes of 2010 and 2011.  With my Records Manager colleague Juliet Moore, we discussed at length the value those CERA records and data would have far beyond the life of the application creating and managing it and the agency itself.  We frequently suggested: “there will be children being born today who will use this data for the PhD”.   It was a humbling thought hoping they might have a kind thought for us as they use some shiny pebble, some app in their day to access and analyze those data.

So your Knowledge Management System is every day a work in progress.   There is no ‘there’.