The people side of knowledge management

In the 1993 ASNT Fall Conference Plenary Address, Mary Lowe Good gave a talk about the Clinton administration’s technology strategy (Materials Evaluation, January 1994). She highlighted one of the most important steps that could be taken to create a better business environment as the implementation of the president’s vision for a national information infrastructure. Although this was talking about an information superhighway, it was access to the information, referred to as the most important currency of the 21st century, facilitated by this highway that would create new jobs and new markets, spur economic growth, empower consumers and stimulate dramatic increases in productivity across the economic landscape.

Whilst deciding what to include in this article, I remembered receiving some emails from a company promoting its knowledge management systems and consultancy. I had deleted the emails, but I knew that, as the emails referred to information on their website, I should easily be able to find it using a search engine. Or so I thought. Unfortunately for you, I will have to rely upon my memory, which may or may not be a reliable source of the information.

But I did try to find the information on the internet and in doing so I ‘encountered’ an undesirable redirection. Again, I turned to a search engine to find out more information, knowing that I would not be the first person to have had this problem. The search turned up a plethora of websites, blogs and forums, all possible sources of the solution. But which one do you trust? Some obviously wanted you to use their particular software. Others gave instructions but these related to a particular situation, which was only part of the issue, and others were out of date. Then there is the suspicion that some may cause you more problems.

So, it is evident that, although most of us have excellent access to information and amazing search engines, which can easily identify key words (making it much easier for me to check if I have told an anecdote before, which I am prone to do!), we have made little progress, and I would suggest that we have gone backwards in ordering and substantiating that information. So, the analogy of the construction of a superhighway and the development of search engine algorithms in the good old black and white days is the provision of superior public transport links to get people quickly and efficiently to the library and then clear signs to direct them to a relevant heap of books, articles, magazines, newspapers, commercial brochures and individuals’ scribblings. We have, in the main, dispensed with the critical input of editors and librarians in favour of cheap and easy access.

In the rush to use information technology to solve all our ills, there are other key groups of people that we are in danger of ignoring. A recent newspaper article highlighted the rise in e-learning and open access courses, with all the potential benefits these are predicted to deliver. It then contrasted this with the news that the people behind the hi-tech companies developing the technology for e-learning are sending their children to traditional teaching schools. What these people realise, whilst foisting their technology on us and hoping we do not, is that a key part of learning and the passing on of information is the human element – the teacher, coach or mentor. I am sure we can all think of individuals who have inspired us to achieve in a particular activity, be that academic, work, sport or a pastime. These people provide motivation, enthusiasm, encouragement and can address an individual’s particular issues. Technology cannot do this.

The information I was searching for and, as I said, am now relying on my memory to relate, was regarding a bridge collapse and how engineers had forgotten the calculations necessary to consider wind loading. It is so easy to forget, or not be aware of, work that has been carried out previously: to think that we have an original idea and rush ahead to investigate it. We have any number of examples of this in NDT (advertisement: for example in human factors – the subject of my talk at the BINDT conference in September – which is not just down to the researchers repeating themselves but also due to the industry continually ignoring the results!). No doubt the NDT community will continue to generate more examples in the future.

This time last year I was writing about the KTN document. In it it was suggested that a national defect centre/library would greatly reduce the cost of validating new technologies. I would suggest that the establishment of a proper NDT information repository, building on the Insight articles and the database included in Insight every month, but with an appropriate classification and ranking system, would have as much benefit, if not more, for the design and validation of inspections and equipment.

In addition, we also need to ensure that the value of experienced personnel passing on their skills and knowledge through the training organisations, within companies and through Branch meetings is recognised and exploited.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within the NDT Newspaper. They do not represent the views of Amec Foster Wheeler or the HSE who funded the PANI projects.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Newton Building, St George’s Avenue, Northampton NN2 6JB. Fax: 01604 89 3861; Email: or email Bernard McGrath direct at

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