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Number: 71
Year: 2002
Author: Johann Van Reenen, Editor
Title: Digital Libraries and Virtual Workplaces. Important Initiatives for Latin America in the Information Age


The amount of sources that talk about knowledge management online is overwhelming. Martin White (2000) says: “Putting the term knowledge management into any of the search engines is rather depressing, as the number of hits is invariably well in excess of 100,000.” A common agreement among IT professionals is that the knowledge of an organization is concentrated in its documents and in its people. Within this abundant subject lies the need to define knowledge and knowledge management. We will use the practical definitions found in Barclay & Murray (2000) because of their convenience for our purposes. According to them there are two kinds of knowledge: “explicit knowledge (sometimes referred to as formal knowledge), which can be articulated in language and transmitted among individuals”, andtacit knowledge (also, informal knowledge), personal knowledgerooted in individual experience and involving personal belief, perspective, and values.”

Barclay & Murray (2000) also provide a good definition of knowledge management.

Knowledge management is a business activity with two primary aspects:
  • “Treating the knowledge component of business activities as an explicit concern of business reflected in strategy, policy, and practice at all levels of the organization.”
  • “Making a direct connection between an organization´s intellectual  assets – both explicit [recorded] and tacit [personal know-how]—and positive business results.”
Implementations of knowledge management “may range from technology-driven methods of accessing, controlling, and delivering information to massive efforts to change corporate culture.” “Knowledge and information have become the medium in which business problems occur. As a result, managing knowledge represents the primary opportunity for achieving substantial savings, significant improvements in human performance, and competitive advantage.”

It is also worth quoting what they had to say about the technological environment in which knowledge workers perform today.

“The nature of business has changed in at least two important ways:

1. Knowledge work is fundamentally different in character from physical

2. The knowledge worker is almost completely immersed in a computing environment. This new reality dramatically alters the methods by which we must manage, learn, represent knowledge, interact, solve problems, and act.

... the computerized business environment provides opportunities and new methods for representing ‘knowledge’ and leveraging its value.”

The technology available is at an adequate point to ease the management of  the knowledge of an organization. In this chapter we explore two fundamental technologies which can significantly contribute to this management, these are: portals and databases.

A portal is an overloaded term used to describe, among other things, a bundle of services provided electronically, through the web, to a set of users. A portal is a powerful notion. It allows the integration of many functions within a single interface. Sarah Roberts-Witt (1999) provides a good list of what can be included in a portal: “under this portal umbrella sits business intelligence, content and document management, enterprise resource planning systems, data warehouses, data-management applications, search and retrieval and any other application”. Roberts-Witt also adds, “the ultimate portal would also provide the Holy Grail in terms of organizational knowledge — true data aggregation and information integration coupled with knowledge worker collaboration.”

The notion of dynamically acquiring content and making it available on the web is not new and has become an obvious goal for any web site. But the level to which this goal can be attained is not a simple matter. The technology which plays a central role in this purpose is database technology. Databases are created to structure and describe large quantities of data and to provide a mechanism for querying these data. The main difficulty of building databases lies precisely in structuring the data, which usually involves a complex process of designing the structures, implementing, them using a database management system (DBMS), loading the data, and writing the applications which will query and update the data. Research in databases has extended the scope to include data coming from varied sources, also called multimedia data, which in particular includes documents. On the other hand, a web browser provides a very powerful and universal interface which has allowed easy access to data regardless of its geographical location, as long as it is made available on the web.  As such, a web browser is a very appropriate interface for a database.

Databases and portals are two key elements of IT with the potential to provide appropriate access to the vast amounts of online data existent in an organization today in a dynamic and organized manner. In this chapter we explore the relationships between portals and databases and how the interaction between them can be an effective vehicle for knowledge management. In section 2, we define the notion of a database and review the process to make it available to the users. Section 3, covers the notion of Portal, some of its different flavors, and what are the tools and options for building one. In section 4 we present the conclusions  and our vision of the future of portals, specially as a development opportunity for Latin America.