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Sunday, July 25, 2010

Making sense of Storing Knowledge – Part 1 – Thinking Through

What is knowledge and can it be stored?
Before we talk about storing it, let’s quickly define what knowledge is? A topic if discussed can go on and on but for my benefit, I will go with what the Oxford dictionary and define it as – expertise, and skills acquired by a person through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. Another question that comes to our mind at this point is 'Can knowledge me stored?' It is not easy certainly but let’s assume that someone spends a good amount of time and effort and captures what he or she knows on a particular subject / topics into a document / ppt or any other available media. The person might have obtained this knowledge by a combination of reading, learning from personal experience or experience of others who interact with him, etc.
Why does someone want to store knowledge?
Well for start, although our brains are extremely powerful systems that can store and retrieve a huge amount of information, we prefer to have some support mechanisms in place to help us store our knowledge in external media for easy sharing and quick ‘guaranteed’ retrieval when required (why guaranteed? Well sometimes we forget what we know and our memory kind of plays tricks…If I may put it that way. An external medium from that extent doesn’t lose what it has captured unless someone wants it to or there is some an accident or physical damage to that medium).
Storing knowledge in these external media also helps in easy sharing. With time limitations and effort required in sharing something you know to another person or a group of people, it is easier to send them what you know in the form of a document or file that you have build up over a period of time. This also saves you from repeating what you said to multiple people who may not interact with you at the same time.
Where does one keep this stored knowledge?
Well if it is not much then you can keep it is as documents and file it for future reference (Considering the future, I suggest you not print these documents but keep it in a folder in your computer). In an organization, we may not want our employees to keep the knowledge that they have all in their computers. For the benefit of organization as a whole the knowledge in a replicable form is kept in a database – let’s call it a ‘knowledge base’ distinguishing them from the various databases that we have in the org.
So far so good - Knowledge obtained by individual --> converted into a shareable format --> store in central repository for public access --> knowledge seekers go to this database, search and find what they are looking for --> Use the knowledge from the database and submit back the new knowledge that they have / generate to the database and the cycle continues. Simple – Well not really. Organizations of course are working on making this cycle happen and it would not be understatement to say that most KMs in various organizations work towards manually running this cycle. The ideal situation is for this cycle to run on its own (A situation of knowledge continuously is being generated, captured, stored, re-used, re-vitalized and re-captured).
Who uses this stored knowledge?
Now that we have the knowledge stored in the database, let’s try to find who uses this knowledge. Assumption here is that it is getting used (A major challenge organizations face it to be able to measure this usage. I am not going talk about that now in this article). Well who uses it? 1) People who are looking for this knowledge hmmm…..why are they looking for it? ….maybe because they have a need that is immediate….so immediate that they can’t wait to learn / experience on their own so therefore better for them to learn from someone else’s experience / education. Also my experience from school days tells me, the fastest way to learn something is to learn it from someone who has taken the longer way of learning it by reading / experiencing it!! In this way you get the essence without actually getting involved in the extraction process!! From an examination perspective, this approach was pretty effective – a short term fix for the requirements of a faulty system of evaluations in schools.
Does knowledge age?
To be more descriptive - Does the knowledge captured in a database remain as valid some time after it was captured or recorded or does time have an impact on the usefulness of knowledge? I feel it does have an impact. Let me explain this point using an example. Let’s assume we try to capture how we can get from Mumbai to Dubai and imagine we are doing this in 1850. Well at that period the known modes of travel from Mumbai to Dubai might be by road, rail or sea. Well if in 2010 someone where to find this knowledge object (any capturable form of this knowledge) and try using this to get from Mumbai to Dubai again how successful will he be? Well the same three modes of travel still exists (road, rail and sea) but they all have changed a lot since 1850. Also they have been joined by another mode which is the most used mode currently and that is air travel. In fact there are other developments which might even eliminate the requirement for travel in the first place like telephones, e-mails and video conferences, etc. Now what is the problem here? Why is knowledge captured in 1850 not useful to us currently in 2010? Is it because it was captured the wrong way in the first place or if Mumbai or Dubai changed their places in the world map? Of course not, but what had happened is that over a period of time technological and political changes and developments have resulted in the evolution of much better solutions to travelling between these two locations. What I am trying to bring out here is that knowledge of today might not still be relevant sometime in future. Every knowledge object that we try to capture has a life period of validity.
In the above example, I took this large difference in time period to make the point of knowledge being impacted by time pretty obvious but if one were to apply this to ones everyday life then it obviously applicable here too.
What’s wrong with stored knowledge?
Well if knowledge ages and shows all signs of it - applicability reduces; situations change; new and more improved approaches and technologies emerge, etc then storing knowledge in a database may not be all that useful. What if we were able to constantly update the knowledge in database with recent experiences, developments etc? In this case, any piece of knowledge in the database will more useful to the seeker that it was if not regularly updated. The problem organizations face when they store knowledge in a database is that they assume that a further build on this knowledge gets uploaded in the database too. My experience has basically told me that using something from the knowledge base, assuming it is the latest piece of information that that organization has generated internally is a mistake. Employees do not upload the latest piece of knowledge that they generate in the knowledge base immediately if not ever.
Now take a look at your knowledge base. How many knowledge objects do you have in it and how many can be used as-is in a typical issue or situation that you face at your workplace with complete confidence that it is the best available answer or latest piece of knowledge that could come from your colleagues at that point in time. Well I seriously doubt if you find any that meet that criteria. Even if it is the latest content that has been captured in an organization, it always makes sense to check if there is a different perspective or solution that might exist in someone’s desktop or head that hasn’t got its way into the knowledge base. Also there is the fact that only a very small percentage of the knowledge that an organization generates gets into the knowledge base anyway. The rest remain with the employees either in their desktops or in their heads. Of course we are only talking about knowledge that can actually be captured in a format to be stored in databases! There is so much we don’t know we know and that’s outside the preview of this article!!
The question that emerges next is if the knowledge base in your organization is not really useful because it doesn’t really get updated / have useful content then why have it at all? Many organizations refuse to accept the existence of this question because unfortunately the number of the knowledge objects in the knowledge base seems to be one of the ways they try to quantify the amount of knowledge that exists in their organization and thus justify the existence of their KM practice in the organization. More the content in the knowledge base more KMs required to ‘manage’ them?! …You are the getting the drift right! I am sure you would have reports that tell you that we have captured ‘X’ number of documents / presentations / videos this year which have been accessed ‘N’ number of times and therefore ‘All’s well’ wrt to knowledge management!! The problem here is accessing a document in your knowledge base doesn’t mean that it is useful or that it be used in any form as such. Nowadays we have options to also place a comment but again usage of this feature hasn’t been very positive at least internally. Rating works better as its easier to do but it still doesn’t mean that highest rated document in the knowledge base on the topic you are looking for is the best content available in your company.

And there’s a lot more we do as we diverge further from the right track. More on that and what we should do to set things right soon in my follow-up article. Coming soon!!

Have you folks had similar experiences and if yes, how are you handling these situations? Love to hear from you all!

3 Comments:

Anonymous Donatus Kabanda said...

i still have some debate in my mind considering the difference btn KNOWLEDGE and INFORMATION. Some source has argued that knowledge is distinct from simple information in that while both consist of true statements, knowledge however is information that has purpose. Could it be true therefore that one's knowledge is another person's information? Could it also carry weight to say that knowledge has a connotation of application which mere information hasn't? Could it also be true that the organisation's database could either be considered as knowledge or information or even both depending on the situation?

9:47 PM  
Anonymous Google android app development said...

Excellent pieces. Keep posting such kind of information on your blog. I really impressed by your blog.

1:15 PM  
Blogger tim tim said...

purified information is knowledge. knowledge can state as information but information can not be stated as knoledge.

4:02 PM  

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