The Challenge of Knowledge Management

From the archives, by Wallie Dayal

Meaningful information, commonly referred to as knowledge, is a precious commodity. It rarely presents itself serendipitously. Rather, it must be mined and extracted like a precious metal and tended and cared for like a beautiful plant in a garden of weeds. Irrelevant information is ubiquitous, while relevant information is often hidden. If only foresight were as good as hindsight. Could the tender plant have been protected from the ‘unexpected’ hailstorm?

Not long ago, nearly every business executive was overwhelmed by an onslaught of seemingly meaningless data. Enterprising minds solved the problem by associating bits of data into meaningful information. But the same problem emerged once more. Instead of being overwhelmed by raw data, business is faced with an overabundance of information, which bombards every decision-maker and drowns many in an ocean of possibilities and indecision. Others are left at the mercy of snake-oil salesmen who sell promising solutions to every problem. The illusion of knowledge is fueled by information age tools that can extract, align and recombine data and information at amazing speeds. However, it is the information’s relevance to us, and to our clients’ strategies that is the key.

Knowledge management helps us make sense of a designated arena. Let me use a simple analogy to illustrate this point. The relationship between words, sentences, paragraphs and essays is analogous to data, information, knowledge and meaning. Although words and data are units of meaning in and of themselves, in isolation they are relatively uninteresting. The next level up, sentences and information are more useful because they represent simple units of thought and meaning, which can have a profound impact on the perceiver. Paragraphs and knowledge increase the power and context of these simple units of meaning by bolstering them with supporting arguments and associated facts. The reader can accept the paragraph as knowledge relevant to him or reject it as irrelevant information. Essays and wisdom frame the arguments within a larger context and offer insight, perspective and a definite point of view.

Effective knowledge management is an age-old quest. It is not a quick fix to a problem; rather, it requires constant attention and vigilance. It does not self-propagate, nor can it be delegated since packaged knowledge tends to revert to information. To most business people garbage in – garbage out is a familiar phrase. In the realm of knowledge management, a measure of wisdom has to be applied. Thus, garbage in – garbage out becomes wisdom in, knowledge out.

If we could only manage the information that is available to man, no question would be unanswered, no challenge unsolved. The organizing tools and databases of the information age are the high speed highways which can provide answers to a multitude of questions, but our ability to manage knowledge will always be limited by our capacity to master a body of information in relation to our shifting strategies and our continually changing point of view. How else could modern day re-discoveries of ancient remedies be explained? How else can we explain the impossibility of obtaining a US telephone number from our friendly phone companies for anyone whose city of residence is not precisely known?

Effective Combo: Common Sense and Information Age Tools

Just a few short weeks ago, business executives paid homage to an annual new years resolution to rid the office of accumulated paper and electronic information that is no longer relevant. If prior year’s cleanups had been aborted before completion, the accumulated paper debris of multiple years is equivalent to a trip down memory lane. Might have beens, pleasant and unpleasant memories come to mind and often, we discover valuable information we had, that we forgot we had. Self-recriminations surface: how stupid of me, this would have been so helpful just a month ago. As the wastebaskets fill to overflowing, an odd mixture of being glad to be rid of old ballast and of fearing that at least a portion of what lands in the dumpster or recycle bin will be sorely missed at some point in the coming year.

Since these departing documents and files last saw light, our strategies shifted, our client base changed, the marketplace moved to new platforms. Value to ourselves and value for our client services have realigned. The information has become useless even if we had asked ourselves the proper – ‘why am I keeping this information?’-question before filing it away

Should I keep nothing beyond documents for immediate use you might ask? After all, wonderful electronic resources of all kinds are available. This is certainly an option and may work for many knowledge workers. For others, this type of direct access to information lacks the necessary context and relation to the physical world to provide the right kind of decision support. Most knowledge workers devise a knowledge management system suitable to their specific needs, interests and preferences. In most cases, this will include a mixture of hardcopy materials, electronic files and bookmarks of electronic resources that are organized by function and theme. Alas, no system is perfect, none meets all needs and even knowledge management pundits proclaim ‘For understanding the business potential of companies, inexact measures are better than none at all. (Knowledge Management, November 1998) A solidly thought out organization structure for knowledge access and retention provides a distinct navigation advantage and is well worth the trouble. It provides access to basic units of knowledge which form the foundation for adding value to our services and our customers. Search engines, bookmarks, databases, electronic and physical reference material function as unique accelerators and can give us a relative advantage which we can further enhance by our personal preferences and adapt to our learning styles.

The ancient Romans set an example. To expand and manage their empire, they perfected the building of roads, solid structures of engineering with four layers of sub-structures. On the surface, the roads were ridged in the middle to allow drainage. The untiring engineering zeal which has taken shape in these roads, sections of which are functional 2000 years later provided a powerful infrastructure for conquest, control and civilization. Armies, governors, and tax collectors traversed these roads through the wilderness of the colonies. One of the greatest beneficiaries of these ancient roads were merchants. Solidly built roads no longer exposed them to bandits and robbers because their wagons got stuck in the mud or disabled in potholes. Because of its roads, Rome had a distinct advantage and it became a glorious empire in its time.

Frederic Hayek once said: ‘practically every individual has some advantage over others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made.’ It is the wisdom we apply to information that turns it into knowledge. Codified systems based on statistics, assumptions and expectations, often euphemistically referred to, as knowledge management systems are only imperfect components of such a system. How we use this information, how we link it with other knowledge is contingent on wisdom. And wisdom poses the question: is knowledge management, i.e. using all available information to best advantage even possible. If it were, every problem would have been solved long ago, every question would have been answered long ago. In such a world, who would be the customer?

Rather than succumb to the frustrating complexity of knowledge management, we could take pleasure in the never-ending challenge of managing our knowledge base and of taking advantage of the speedways through the global information-maze, of being reassured that this realm affords us the possibility for applying our unique talents which we can leverage with databases, search engines, reference books and paper to suit our needs in order to extract knowledge and value for ourselves and our customers. Knowlege Branch:

  • Management. Function: Business Intelligence