Image [cc] nayukim

Oh, to define Knowledge.

Is it:

Data + Information = Knowledge?

Could it be the circular argument of:

Experience leads to Knowledge, which leads to Decisions, which lead to Action, which lead to Experience, which leads to Knowledge… [E+K+D+A…] 

One of my favorite Knowledge Management bloggers, Nick Milton, discusses this in his post yesterday called, “Where Does Knowledge Come From?” Nick goes on to push for the second algorithm in explaining where “Knowledge” is created in the grand scheme of things. The idea of knowledge coming from experience is not a new concept, but it may be an oversimplification of how we obtain knowledge, and how, as Knowledge Managers, we think about how we build upon these pyramids of knowledge/experience or data/info/knowledge.

Trying to create a pyramid, or an algorithm to define “Knowledge” reminds me of the classic Sidney Harris cartoon where the professor is looking over the mathematical equation of one of his students, where step two is defined as, Then A Miracle Occurs, then step three goes on to give the answer. The classic answer, of course, is “I think you should be more explicit here in step two.” Or, in this pyramid scheme’s case, I think we should be a little more explicit in what step one defines as “Experience.”

Just as any good blogger should do… I’m going to completely oversimplify this answer and combine Nick’s pyramids. We gain “experience” through our individual interpretation of the data + information piece of the pyramid. We build upon these experiences, over time, to create our individual knowledge. The idea behind this process is that as we gather new pieces of data + information, we gain additional experiences. Now, whether the knowledge piece of the pyramid comes next and influences our decisions and actions, or whether our experiences, decisions and actions creates our individual knowledge can be debated. I guess that depends upon whether you think the “end result” that you obtain from this process is the ability to act, or is the end result that you are more knowledgeable. (That sounds like an entirely different blog post for a later date.)

As Knowledge Managers, how you look at these pyramids may influence how you approach your job of sharing knowledge across your organization. Do we look at capturing what we define as knowledge, or do we attempt to build a better way of enhancing the experience of our people? How do we define our “base line” of the knowledge/experience formula? Nick suggests that  the E + K + D + A formula is the preferred method. It is the whole “E + K” part that I think are the basis for how Knowledge Managers attempt to expand our workforce’s ability to make better “D + A” processes. However, just as in the cartoon, I think we really need to be more explicit in what makes up those first two steps.

For many years we have been talking about Intranets as a place to quickly find information. There has been much discussion about technology improvements and the latest design ideas.  We talk about how to organize (taxonomy) and access (in Outlook or web browser) information. We have even involved attorneys in the design process with the hope that by so doing, we will build a better Intranet. We keep thinking that if we get it right, the attorneys will start using it. But, with few exceptions, Intranets are little more than administrative clearing houses of static information.

The problem with the conventional view of Intranets is that it is an enterprise approach to what should be a consumer experience.  In order to succeed, the Intranet needs to be an adaptive, ever learning, ever growing aggregate of my view in the firm as well as my web based social interactions. It needs to allow me to organize information in a way that makes sense to me and it needs to have robust search that makes information easy to find.  As we all know, users are more likely to use a Google style search to find information than they are to look through various sub-sites trying to figure out how to reserve a conference room.  But, robust search on its own does not solve the problem.
The principles that apply to effective Internet websites also apply to Intranets. An effective website needs to be visually engaging and intuitive, but more importantly it needs fresh content. A site can be easy to navigate and have a great look, but if the content is stale, readers will go elsewhere. And, most Intranets lack fresh content. Yes, we post interesting stories about a deal that just concluded or we share information about what is going on in various offices. We remind people about firm policy or list training opportunities on a feature in Word, somehow expecting this to pique their interest.  We have not created a compelling place that draws viewers.  At best, it is yet another way station of  administrative information.

We need to do build Intranets that reflect the interests of the reader. A site needs to be able to look and feel different for each user to address each user’s unique perspective. 

An effective Intranet needs to blur the lines of personal and professional, because most of today’s workers do not have clear cut delineations between work and play.  For those few who still want the delineation, a well designed site will accommodate their wishes too. Intranets need to embrace social media, both external and internal. They need to foster a sense of community and quickly adapt to changing times.

The secret to building fresh content is to leverage the social interactions of one’s personal life and commingle them with their business needs.  As your interests change, the Intranet needs to change as well.  We see this technology being used in several different ways in the consumer market.  A simple example is gmail’s ability to present relevant information as you compose an email.  In the case of gmail, the relevant information comes in the form of advertisements that are based on your email’s content.  With an Intranet, instead of adverts, it would be research opportunities and precedent banks.  It would leverage your firm’s experience database and provide you with links to internal and external experts on the topic at hand. When done correctly, the Intranet would be a powerful tool for sharing knowledge, collaboration and communication.  When done correctly, the Intranet would become the portal we have always talked about.
Programatically speaking, this is not hard to do. Culturally, this is happening already, however it is happening outside the firm. And when it happens outside the firm, the firm does not benefit from the interactions, from the exchange of knowledge or the sense of community. When this happens outside the firm, you do not have the opportunity to share important information with your people or capture and re-purpose knowledge.
The biggest challenge we face in making this move is changing management’s perception that all this social media stuff is not only a waste of time, but also a time waster.  
The reality is, social media has replaced the water cooler.  Now, instead of interacting with a few people on your floor, you are interacting with the world. The benefit is greater exposure to real world needs and solutions, opportunities to be recognized for your contributions and new sources of information.
The change is upon us and yet we continue to build systems designed with the enterprise in mind and wonder why these systems are not being used.   It is time to change the paradigm and not think in terms of enterprise or consumer, but in terms of efficiency, improved productivity and systems designed to self-improve with increasing amounts of information.  Leveraging information is the key to success moving forward.