It is okay to say, “I don’t know.” This simple phrase seems to be the absolute last statement that computer professionals want to utter. I guess the thinking goes something like this: “If I admit I don’t know what he is talking about then I’ll look stupid. Then I’ll be passed over for that important and interesting project. Or maybe I’ll even lose my job.” The flipside of this “problem” is the person who just has to say something other than “I don’t know,” when the better approach is to say nothing if you cannot say you don’t know. Remember that old adage that it is “better to be silent and appear stupid than to open your mouth and remove all doubt?”
But nobody can know everything about any topic in this day and age. Things are changing too fast and information is being spread too efficiently. We may live in the Information Age, but sometimes it can seem like the Dark Ages. Businesses today are awash in a flood of data coming from all types of sources. It comes in blogs like this one, Twitter and Facebook, magazines and newspapers, by e-mail, in the mail, by phone, on voice mail, on TV and radio, from conferences, over the web, in business and technical books, and on and on and on.
So how do we manage this information? The sad truth is, usually we don’t! We listen, we try to observe and retain some of the information, and yet so much of it completely eludes us in terms of permanent retention. Studies have shown that we retain less than 20% of what we try to learn.
And, worse yet, even if information is retained somewhere, somehow, quite often we’ll forget where it is or how to retrieve it. I know I’ve printed off many e-mails only to lose them and forget all about reading or responding to them. I don’t think I’m alone. But in the day and age of the efficient search engine not much really needs to be printed off and saved any more, does it?
Manage That Knowledge
The sad fact of the matter is that there is simply too much information for anybody to be able to manage and retain it for any given period of time. The trick is knowing where to find information instead of trying to remember everything. This is where the burgeoning field of knowledge management comes into play.
At one point there was a lot of hype surrounding knowledge management and much of it was easy to dismiss. Vendors, as usual, hopped on the bandwagon and claim that everything from e-mail systems to OLAP servers to document management systems are knowledge management solutions. I guess, in a way, they are… but knowledge management is much more.
Knowledge management can help organizations to store, and more importantly, easily retrieve and use critical business information. Knowledge management requires technology, business strategy, and people. It is the process of capturing the collective knowledge of the organization, analyzing it and transforming it into easily recognizable forms for mass consumption, and communicating the results to the organization by means of a readily accessible vehicle.
Sifting Through the Garbage
Even though I am a knowledge management proponent, I am also a realist. And I understand that the term “knowledge” is not ideal and that the phrase “knowledge management” is not well defined.
So what is “knowledge?” Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines knowledge as “the fact or condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association.” This seems to be a good definition of knowledge as it is universally used and accepted. However, it begs the following question: what is meant by the term “knowing?” Once again, let’s turn to Webster’s. The word “know” is defined as “to perceive directly: have direct cognition of.” And just for completeness sake, cognition is defined as “the act or process of knowing including both awareness and judgment.”
So, according to these definitions knowledge implies cognition, and cognition implies awareness. And computers do not have these capabilities today and will not have them any time soon (IBM’s Watson notwithstanding). This is why my definition of knowledge management requires not just technology, but business strategy and people. The people must define the business strategy and interpret the information to turn it into knowledge.
The Evolution from Data to Knowledge and Beyond
The basic building block of knowledge is data. Data is a fact represented as an item or event out of context and with no relation to other things. Examples of data are 27, 010110, and JAN. Without additional details we know nothing about any of these three pieces of data. Consider:
- Is 27 a number in base ten, or is it in octal (which would translate to 23 in base ten)?
- If 27 is a number in base ten what does it represent? Is it an age, a dollar amount, an IQ, a shoe size, or something else entirely?
- What about 010110? Is it a binary number? Or is it a representation of a date, perhaps January 1, 1910? January 1, 2010? Or something else entirely?
- Finally, what does JAN represent? Is it a woman’s name (or a man’s name)? Or does it represent the first month of the year?
All of these are examples of data because of the lack of context.
Information, on the other hand, adds context through relationships between data, and possibly other information. Data with meta data and context makes information. The relationships may represent information, yet the relations do not actually constitute information until they are understood. Also, the relationships that represent data have a tendency to be limited in context, mostly about the past or present, with little if any implication for the future.
Knowledge adds understanding and retention to information. It is the next natural progression after information. To have “knowledge” requires information in conjunction with patterns between data, information, and other knowledge, couples it with understanding and cognition.
The final step would be to move from knowledge to wisdom. Wisdom can be thought of as knowledge applied. You may have the knowledge that fatty foods are bad for you, but if you eat it anyway, you are not wise. I predict that some brave organization will attempt to offer wisdom management at some point, as the natural progression from knowledge management. (Note: I do not necessarily predict they will succeed.)
Knowledge management is a growing requirement these days for companies to succeed in a competitive landscape. Organizations must better manage what it is they “know” — I mean, who can reasonably argue with that, right? The bottom line is that knowledge management can bolster a company’s performance by enabling it to better manage the deluge of information we receive on a daily basis.
And then maybe you will be able to say “I don’t know, but I know where to find out.” That is the best situation we can hope for in our ever-changing world of information technology.