Ontopia: The Topic Map Company

Managing Corporate Memory

Topic maps provide a way of bridging the chasm between information and knowledge, and making the relevant piece of information available at the right time. They are also a stable and reliable international standard. This makes them ideal for knowledge management applications, as this article explains.

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, the key to success in many industries was simply to have invested in exactly the right equipment, at the right point in time, in order to be able to deliver goods faster and cheaper than the competition. Today things are no longer that simple. The invention of the term "knowledge management" acknowledges the fact that what is in people's heads is rapidly becoming the key asset of many organizations, and that this knowledge needs to be nurtured, captured, and shared with others.

Easier said than done! To start with: How do we go about capturing knowledge?

Knowledge is closely associated with information but, at the same time, quite different from it: The difference is that of knowing a thing versus simply having information about that thing.

While we have technology to help manage, retrieve, and process information, the same cannot be said for knowledge. Today, most "knowledge management tools" are little more than information management tools with a new label on the box. On the other hand, knowledge representation has been locked in the domain of artificial intelligence and separated by an enormous chasm from information management.

Now, with the advent of topic maps, that chasm can be bridged.

Topic maps are the subject of a new international standard, ISO/IEC 13250:2000, whose purpose is to provide a unified model for representing knowledge and linking it with the information resources in which it is embodied.

With topic maps it becomes possible to both:

  • capture and manage precious corporate memory, and
  • find those needles of relevant information in the haystack of infosmog surrounding us.

Topic maps promise to revolutionize the ways in which we search for and navigate information, they allow us to model and represent knowledge in an interchangeable form, and they provide a unifying framework for knowledge and information management.

But as with most "radically new" things, the basic concepts are grounded in ideas that are familiar to all of us.

In fact, the starting point for the development of the topic map standard was the traditional back-of-book index. Such an index can be thought of as a map into the book's subject matter that captures some of the knowledge within it, in the form of a list of topics; certain associations between them (in the form of "see also" references); and occurrences of those topics within the text.

Drawing on insights from artificial intelligence, topic maps generalize these concepts into the realm of electronic information, and because they embrace both knowledge and information, they are ideal for knowledge management applications:

  • the entities involved in an organization (people, roles, products, etc.) can be represented as topics;
  • the complex and shifting relationships between those entities can be represented as associations; and
  • the documentation and other information resources that relate to them can be represented as occurrences.

Thus corporate memory can be captured in a standardized form, processed reliably by computers, and interchanged between applications. Topic maps will make the dream of being able to manage knowledge into a reality.