The future of Knowledge Management Software
By Paul Kurucz
The future of knowledge management (KM) software is an extremely bright one.
As we move into the Age of Knowledge, there is an ever increasing need for tools
to help us sort through the waterfalls of data and information that pour into
our lives. In our professional lives, we are flooded with e-mail messages, electronic
newsletters, web site articles, useful data in charts, and much more. In our
personal lives, time is becoming an increasingly scarce resource when we spend
more and more time sorting, filtering, replying, and managing this flood in
our professional lives. We try to manage this time problem by being more efficient
in our professional lives, in the hope that more time in our personal lives
will therefore result. Unfortunately the Internet at home means this most often
We need a breakthrough in knowledge management software - a "killer application"
- or soon the ever growing waterfalls of data and information will overwhelm
even the most efficient and organized of us all.
Where is the "killer app"? It must be coming
As of the writing of this review at the end of 2003, there is no true "killer
application" tool that could help us all be super efficient and effective
knowledge workers. Many programmers and knowledge workers are contributing toward
the goal of better and more useful software tools, but no one tool, or set of
tools, is yet the "swiss army knife" of knowledge management. Big
gaps in features exist still. Each software package has a tantalizing feature
that we wish the others had. On top of this is the nagging and irritating feeling
that the underlying paradigms of these software packages aren't "natural"
to the way we work and think.
- They are text-based when we also want visual.
- They are linear when we also want free-form.
- They are visual when we want to convert the information to text and linear
forms for different purposes.
- They can't also be time-based, when we want to work to a schedule.
- They don't automatically capture a history of how we work, quietly "snagging"
information that we read, view, and listen to when we go about our business
on the Internet. Snagging information without us asking them to.
But all this is coming. And hopefully soon. Many indicators point to knowledge
management software as one of the hottest fields of software development, and
paradigm shifting research:
- There are literally dozens of software tools being developed
with the help of knowledge workers. These tools are being built by individual
developers, software companies, and universities. As in any industry or business
development life cycle, a large number of "start-ups" often indicates
a point early in the cycle. We are still at the "early adopter"
stage, as marketers call it.
- Microsoft is quietly building a powerful addition to it's Office
suite: OneNote. Quietly, because it, too most likely sees knowledge
management as one of it's future killer app opportunities. Not a lot of competitive
noise from them. Just quiet development. OneNote is hard to find in their
literature. For now.
- David Gelernter, at the start of his article "The
Second Coming: A Manifesto" (6/15/02 - edge.org) suggests why change
is coming to the way we manage data, information, and knowledge:
- "Computing will be transformed. It's not just
that our problems are big, they are big and obvious. It's not just that
the solutions are simple, they are simple and right under our noses. It's
not just that hardware is more advanced than software; the last big operating-systems
breakthrough was the Macintosh, sixteen years ago, and today's hottest
item is Linux, which is a version of Unix, which was new in 1976. Users
react to the hard truth that commercial software applications tend to
be badly-designed, badly-made, incomprehensible and obsolete by blaming
themselves ("Computers for Morons," "Operating Systems
for Livestock"), and meanwhile, money surges through our communal
imagination like beer from burst barrels. Billions. Naturally the atmosphere
is a little strange; change is coming, soon. ..."
- He later calls the way we will manage information as a "lifestream"
- the storing and accessing of information based on what we have seen
and done along the line of time. Much more like the mind works...and much
more like how our tools must "think " in the future.
- These changes point to a paradigm shift, rather than new tools based
on the current "file folder", linear, hierarchical basis of
our current operating systems and application software.
- MIT is developing an information management tool that attempts
to bring together both text and visual information into one coherent package
called "Haystack". This software is more a model than a polished
tool, but it gives us a glimpse of what efficiencies can be achieved by integrating
sources of information and allowing users to view that information in many
- Text based KM tools are stalled. Each is based on the limiting
structures of file hierarchies in an outdated operating system model, which
means development will necessarily be iterative and incremental in these tools
rather than paradigm shifting.
- Visual based KM tools hold promise, but are also hampered
by an outdated and limiting operating system. These tools attempt to more
closely map how minds work, but fail yet to move beyond linking tools to become
true information capturing and managing tools as well.
The state of the art...
The state of the art at the end of 2003 can be summarized as follows:
- Text based tools that do a fine job of outlining, gathering,
filing, allowing searching of text data and information. Lots of these tools
available. Some better than others, and a few that do a superlative job. But
only with text and only in hierarchical structures.
- Very limited visual based tools that do a few useful things
like mind mapping and knowledge linking in some tools and limited text-to-visual
representation in others. But you can't take this very web page article you
are reading, and convert it instantly, without thought, to a mind map, outline,
presentation, table, chart, database, spoken text, or any other format.
- Computer hardware that has vastly outstripped the power of software.
Huge, inexpensive hard drives that can store text, still images, moving images,
and sound in vast quantities and over long periods of time. However the software
available only stores text and in rare cases, images. Processors in these
computers idle most of the time because the software and other hardware parts
are too slow or horribly inefficient. Most times, a processor will cycle "empty"
2-10 times for every cycle of work it is asked to do. Hmmmm...
- A rapidly networking world around the TCP-IP protocol.
The vision of a standard communication protocol is finally, if slowly, coming
true. We hope.
- Bandwidth growth that has hit a temporary plateau. As much
as 80 - 90% of North America's fibre optic cables lie "dark" as
adjustments take place in the telecom's sector and the high-bandwidth uses
of the Internet grow in demand and supply. The hangover of corporate debt
that financed the physical implementation of the vast fibre network will mean
that increasing bandwidth availability to businesses, academics, and individuals
at "Moores Law" rates of price decrease and bandwidth increases
will not happen for at least a couple of years yet.
- Frustrated knowledge workers - like you - the reader of
this article - we must use several different software tools, and all the efficiency
we can muster, to make an outdated paradigm of computing (windows, folders,
text-based tools) suffice for their information and knowledge management needs.
The future of knowledge management software
The future of KM software tools is very bright. One of the next killer apps
will be in the KM field. Here are some things of what must happen for this killer
app to come to fruition:
- The paradigm underlying the current software tools will change.
The coming killer apps of KM will be breathtakingly intuitive, visual and
transparent at the same time. These things simply cannot happen in the current
Windows/Win32/hierarchical/file-based operating system paradigm. The operating
system must finally disappear from our consciousness during our everyday management
of information and knowledge using computer software and hardware tools.
- The killer app tool of the future will will feel like "a butler
of our information life". This tool might be incredibly powerful
at doing all our information gathering, sorting, and management needs transparently
and efficiently while we get on with higher value work. Later, it will go
further and become personified into "a digital assistant" which
gains its own personality and learns what we need support with, as we
learn what we need support with. Forget those irritating Microsoft characters
that pop up in Word. These will be intelligent, useful helpers.
- "A picture is worth a thousand words". Text based
tools that don't evolve out of text-only in the near future are doomed. We
must be able to able to view our data and information in multiple modes (textually
and visually) instantly.
- Text will become "visualizable" and visualizations will become
"textable" into familiar hierarchical forms.
- The number of common visualization forms, which now number less than
10 (calendars, mind maps, charts, visual hierarchies, etc.) will number
in the hundreds or even thousands in the future. Each will be instantly
convertible and transferable into a variety of information formats and
- What text based software tools do now will be only a small part of what
visual based tools will become in the future. They will become a subset
part of visual tools. One menu choice among many.
- Even further: A motion video clip with sound is worth ten thousand
words. Visual tools that integrate full multimedia are on the way
and will almost completely replace text-only tools. Users will want to capture
and mix text, visuals, sound, pictures, and video. Seamlessly. Easily. Quickly.
- Ultimately: A collection of personally important knowledge in the
form of text, still images, audio, and video, all arrayed on a continuous
timeline that is almost instantly searchable and "manipulable" is
what we must have, and eventually will have. The collection will
not be "links", but native copies held in a personal archive which
we can go back to later and access, even when the original source has been
changed or removed. We must be able to access past digital "snapshots"
and "streams" of our personal digital experience whenever we want
to. "Fair use" for the 21st century. Copyright owners may not like
it, but they are working with a 19th century paradigm of ownership now. They
will catch up, however this catch-up will be post-facto.
- Once we have a breakout in high bandwidth availability at low prices
we will see a massive surge in innovation in KM software tools.
- The Knowledge Management killer application must do it all
- capture text
- capture multimedia (natively stored)
- create visualizations of text relationships
- create text representations of visual relationships
- be completely visually customizable to match a user's thinking style
- be almost transparent to the user at the same time
- and ....
The age of humans being hunter-gatherers lasted tens of thousands of years.
The age of agriculture in human history lasted thousands of years.
The industrial age is lasting hundreds of years, though it is nearly done.
The information age is lasting decades.
But the information age is simply a beginning of the knowledge age. And the
knowledge age is just beginning. We need new tools to help us do our work in
this new age.
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The article is an opinion piece produced by Paul Kurucz. Please e-mail
with your thoughts so that this document, and whole primer, can be improved.
Written December 2003, latest update February 2005. This document or any information
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Paul Kurucz as the author of anything you copy from here. Thank you.