When information becomes knowledge

Coming back from vacation I ran across a pre-obituary for Knowledge Management penned by Chuck Hollis. The victim isn’t dead quite yet, but if it does pull through it will need to join the witness protection program under a new name. The name of the killer? Social Computing. Chuck goes to great lengths describing his view of classical knowledge management. The problem with the discussion is that the idea that knowledge could be managed in the first place is flawed. Systems cannot manage knowledge – only information.

At this point I realize I may have sparked a semantic debate that really can’t be won but stick with me. In other posts Pie , Billy Cripe et.al. discuss the virtues (real and imagined) of Enterprise 2.0, Web 2.0 and the like. Mr. Hart’s last post accurately draws the debate into an examination of the relationship of Whatever 2.0 and the thing we call Knowledge Management. I just don’t get KM because I don’t accept the premise that knowledge is manageable.

Dave Snowden suggests using social computing components for low cost KM in a recent article in KM World. He stresses the need for a sort of hands-off approach to the process and to avoid formalization of the approach. This is not management – it’s facilitation. At most he suggests a degree of governance but certainly not the rigid structured approaches of the past.

Information Management is really what we do. All of it is data. Some of it is content – structured and unstructured. Knowledge is something different. Information only becomes knowledge when it is known. To be known, information has to be possessed by a thinking individual. This is the heart of the matter Laurence touched on. (pun intended) We can talk context, relevance and taxonomies until the cows come home but there is no escaping the fact that without a human to know it – it is only information. (cybernetic neuro-networks in space excluded )

I don’t argue the usefulness of the term Knowledge Management to categorize a class of systems that aggregates a body of information relevant to a particular organization or process. At the end of the day though, this is simply content management with context – not knowledge.

Social computing introduces dynamic patterns of use that bring technology closer to KM than anything we have seen before. How? By making people with unconstrained thought a part of the processing the system performs as opposed to a consumer or basic input mechanism. It is more than simple workflow, review and approval.

Human interaction and experience shape the creation, growth, categorization, application and eventual subversion of data. It is not governed by static processes but rather by responses to events and experience that may or may not have been initiated by the organization. It is this dependence on organic interaction with the information store and the community that maintains it which makes social computing fundamentally different from a rules based CMS that was meant to constrain more than facilitate.

The underlying technology of social networking software is largely unremarkable. I’ve had heated debates on this topic but at the end of the day, the technical implementation is really just a CMS with a focused set of use cases and common data model. Sure there is SOA, and Ajax and REST (Oh My) but again – this is a next generation architecture for legacy capabilities.

So then, what has changed is not so much in the technology but in the users themselves. They get it. And woe be unto the IT dweeb that tries the “that can’t be done” line on a thirty something VP addicted to Twitter.

The content being created in wikis and blogs is given context and relevance directly by those that know what it is for, what it says and how to apply it. The information is becoming knowledge. The system opens the lines of communication and surfaces the relationships to facilitate the creation of knowledge in the community founded on shared information.

KM isn’t dead – it’s just not and never has been a system. It’s a practice. A way of interacting with primarily CMS applications and a set of expectations that the information will tell me what to do. The term “management” minimizes the most important element – people.

As Chuck suggests – if you’re doing this now – call it something else. Unfortunately, social computing isn’t much better – sounds like a way to get really embarrassing diseases – but that will have to wait for another post.

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