APWA InfoLink: Knowledge is power

David Reinke
APWA InfoLink Project Manager

Much has been written these days about the latest buzzwords in Information Technology-"Knowledge Management," "e-commerce," "e-business" and "e-government"-and the focus of subsets of those areas, whether Business to Business ("B2B") or Business to Consumer ("B2C"). As an association, the American Public Works Association has a different mission with its own technology initiative, seeking to provide to its members a single site that delivers the benefits of "association" in all its definitions. It might not earn a fancy acronym (Association to Member-A2M?), but nonetheless brings exciting new benefits to all its members.

APWA InfoLink, developed in partnership with IZOIC, is basically a Knowledge Management tool, and as such deals with three categories or classifications of types of knowledge: potential, explicit, and tacit. Potential knowledge is just data, facts, or bits of collected information; explicit knowledge builds upon data to become applied information, or "data with purpose"; and tacit knowledge is the culmination of these two lower levels, when the knowledge obtains real value and power. These three levels of knowledge happen to mirror the evolution of APWA InfoLink, and understanding them in terms of the business of the public works professional can help in understanding where APWA InfoLink can grow in the future.

The first level of knowledge is the most basic-the potential knowledge that is data. Everyone deals with data every day. Every member of APWA has an example from this morning of data encountered on the job, whether it is the capacity of a salt/sand spreader, the volume of storm water runoff, the location of signs and utility poles, or the address of the local permitting office. By itself, this data is actually worthless. Until that data is used to make a decision, take an action, or deliver a product, it has no realized benefit. It is only when action is taken with that data, when it becomes explicit knowledge, that it has value. At this basic level, APWA consists of 26,000 completely separate individual members, and the Internet exists as a collection of interconnected computers in a network. It is not until they start to work together that all the potential knowledge represented can begin to be leveraged into something useful.

The second type of knowledge, which builds upon this potential knowledge, is knowledge exchange, or explicit knowledge. This is where the data serves a purpose. The engineer can use collected data on storm water runoff to design a more efficient diversion strategy, infrastructure crews can actively manage road signs and utility poles, and an application for a permit can be retrieved and processed. Version 2.0 of APWA InfoLink starts the process of sharing data in order to make it useful. Internet users are accustomed to "Links" to other sites, but if you think about the original definition of the term you can begin to appreciate the power of a tool like APWA InfoLink. The links that are established begin with a URL pointer, but quickly become links in the true sense of the word, connecting public works professionals with one another to help them in their daily work.

The third, and ultimate, level of knowledge is tacit knowledge that is inherently gained by experience, and understood without being expressed. This level of knowledge is enabled by collaboration, when members of a community can actively share personal experiences, insights, and relationships. It will come to fruition in Version 3.0, when applications are available through APWA InfoLink allowing transactions and true collaboration between users and information. A bridge engineer with laptop or personal digital assistant could not only perform a survey, but also bring up a maintenance history and an interactive GIS map of the site, and then have the assessment transmitted back to his or her office, and simultaneously to the state DOT for incorporation into the FHWA's HERS database and the finance department for inclusion in its GASB 34 accounting.

APWA's Mission Statement reinforces the basic foundation of the organization of knowledge within the organization: APWA will be the members' primary gateway resource for education, knowledge exchange, and services. APWA InfoLink takes the many forms of information that exist within APWA and strengthens the process of sharing it; Version 2.0 begins the process of meaningful knowledge exchange among and between APWA members and interested visitors; and Version 3.0 will be a vehicle for software services and a way to have access to your work, your peers, and your tools in a digital environment.

The term "Knowledge is power" seems coined for knowledge management applications, as it succinctly captures both form and result. When we talk of the potential power of the Internet, or of the role of an association to empower its members, it all boils down to knowledge and how it is used. APWA InfoLink, powered by IZOIC, is poised to deliver this promise of the power to share information, collaborate with peers, suppliers, and potential partners, and harness the experience, and knowledge, of 26,000 individuals.

David Reinke can be reached at 202-408-9541 or by e-mail at dreinke@apwa.net.