After two very heady weeks of discussions about information, knowledge, data, reality, applied knowledge, personal knowledge management, tacit/explicit knowledge, and a wide range of other related topics, I came away with new insights about KM and what it is. It’s really a privilege to exchange ideas with wise and thoughtful people. I think everyone involved in the discussion broadened and deepened our knowledge as a result of our exchanges. Community is a magical thing when it is properly engaged.
Definitions is where the discussion started, but it then branched off into discussions of examples and possibilities, then it encompassed some very philosophical and theoretical thinking before coming back around again to definitions. It’s definitions I want to talk about here, because I have been on a soapbox about the need for them, and my understanding about the relationship of data to information has changed. Thanks especially to Joe Firestone for his philosophical insights.
Until recently, I believed strongly that data exists independently from information and knowledge. I perceived that we are swimming in a sea of data, some of which we know and some of which we are incapable of knowing by virtue of the structure of our sensing organs. I believed data to be the building blocks of information and knowledge, and that for data to have value or make sense, it must be perceived by a “knower” (for lack of a better term). This was partly due to definitions of data (“facts and statistics used for reference or analysis”) and information (“facts or knowledge provided or learned, or, what is conveyed or represented by a particular sequence of symbols, impulses, etc.”). To me this meant that data is a precursor to information. I was wrong. Data is actually one type of information. Here’s what I now understand (with some simple examples below).
Previously, I thought (as many do) that this is the way knowledge evolves from information:
Data –> Information –> Knowledge –> Wisdom
We’ve seen that string in many publications. I now understand it to be something like this (with the bracketed items being components of the word that precedes them):
Actually, I’m not convinced that “wisdom” is the ultimate end state as the traditional model implies. Perhaps “understanding” is. Since that’s a separate conversation, however, I’ve just left it in as a matter of convention.
I like thinking of information as “what is conveyed.” Information is the generic container of three types of components: data, derivations and speculations. Data are measurable outputs from a reality that can be observed — whether it is actually measured or not — so they are statistical in nature. Examples of data might be “12 centimeters” or “73 degrees” or “number of chimpanzees in the forest.” Derivations are inferences that result from data. For example, “The pencil is 12 centimeters long. It is shorter than a pencil that is 15 centimeters long.” Derivations involve a processing activity–observation, comparison, evaluation, etc. Speculations are information that does not rely on reality, observation, or deduction. Fantasy and theories fall into this category. For example, George Lucas’ Star Wars or pure algebra. All of the constructs in Star Wars are fictional–the people, the planets, the transportation, the creatures, the dialogues, the government, the economy. Yet most of us have enough awareness of the Star Wars constructs to be able to discuss them as if they were real. All of the theorems in pure or Lie algebra are based upon imaginary axioms, yet they exist as information and can be used to proove other theorems. So “information” is of three types: data, derivations and speculations.
Information must be communicated to a “knower” in order for knowledge creation to occur. Communication occurs through various shorthand mechanisms we have evolved over millennia, including alphabets, number symbols, languages, gestures and special vocabularies. Some examples of communication efficiency are “North” and “September”. They exist in every language, and are a shorthand for the objects, times, and relationships of objects in our reality. The terms mean something by convention, but contain no informational content. Information is, therefore, what is conveyed.
A knower must be present for “knowledge” to occur. We are continuously receiving and processing information. Through learning and/or experience, the knower uses information selectively to generate knowledge. Knowledge is the product of learning and experience within a brain. It can be tacit or explicit, as described by Polanyi, Nonaka and Takeuchi. Creation of knowledge is both conscious and unconscious. We don’t consciously know how to breathe, but we know how to make ourselves hold our breath if thrown into the water, or breathe deeper, or breathe with control to produce music from a flute. Knowledge is created by the knower.
For me this clarifies everything, and it puts “knowledge management” into perspective. It means that the only valid use of the term “knowledge management” is for personal knowledge management, because we can manage only our own knowledge (or to put it another way, no one can manage anyone else’s knowledge). KM practitioners can provide tools, methods, and education to help others to manage their own knowledge, but we can’t manage their knowledge for them. What we can and do manage is information, and the processes by which individuals share what they know.
I’ll be writing more on this. Check back. :)