Thursday, 14 May 2009
A story of maturing knowledge
"The piece of knowledge we will look at is “how to navigate overland from the east coast to the west coast of the USA.” There was a time, in the 1800s, when this knowledge did not exist. There were no maps, no roads, and no routes. There were settlements of immigrant Americans on the east coast (and a few on the west), and nations of Native Americans within the continental interior, but no consistent body of knowledge about how to navigate across the continent. However the government of the USA saw the knowledge of how to cross the country as representing crucial future strategic knowledge. If a route could be discovered across the continent, it opened up the possibility of major expansion.
"The only way to gain this knowledge was to do a bit of pure research, and in 1805 the US government commissioned Lewis and Clark to “explore the unknown”. This was a risky venture. Of course the terrain was not fully unknown, and Lewis and Clark researched the existing maps (mostly pretty speculative and largely blank), and made use of Native American guides and advisors. They pieced together what was known, worked with people with local knowledge, explored the gaps, and created what was effectively a knowledge product – a new map, which for the first time depicted the American interior.
"By 1840, others had followed Lewis and Clark, making use of the new map, and exploring alternatives and shortcuts. By this stage, much of the knowledge of overland travel was held by a small number of experts, the “frontier scouts” such as Buffalo Bill Cody. They knew the terrain, knew the risks, spoke the language of the First Nations, and were able to make this knowledge available to the Army, to settlers, and to the first wagon trains of travellers. By the time of the 1849 gold rush, this knowledge was of huge value, and the scouts gained wealth and status through their knowledge; often legendary status.
"Eventually the trails became established, and towns sprang up at convenient points. Settlers arrived, and from the 1870s onwards the trails became colonised. For the settlers, knowledge of how to travel to the next town became crucial, and knowledge of the trail became held communally. The community knew which bridges were sound, which passes were blocked, where the clean drinking water was, and which detours were advisable. It would have been possible to navigate across the USA by asking directions from the settler communities, provided they were willing to help a stranger.
"By the 1900s, reliable roads were in place. The trails had become fully established roads, gravel roads or black-tops. Permanent bridges crossed the rivers, permanent passes led through the mountains. The knowledge now could be codified, as the trails were unlikely to change significantly. The government surveyors surveyed the roads, and road maps became publicly available. As the motor car became common, maps were produced by the oil companies, and sold at gas stations along the route (knowledge being supplied at the point of need). No longer did the traveller need to ask for directions (unless they found themselves lost, or “off the map”).
"The roads still changed, new roads were still built, and the road maps were updated in order to reflect up-to-date knowledge.
"From 1920 onwards, the road maps were supplemented by road signs, and the familiar shield-shaped US road signs were established along the main overland routes. If you were following one of the trunk roads such as the famous Route 66 , you did not need a map. You just followed the road signs. The knowledge of how to navigate was now completely embedded in the road infrastructure, at least for the major routes. The details – the back roads and the town roads – did not have the benefit of the direction signs. If you got off the main road, you still needed a map, and if you got off the map, you might still need to ask directions. However for the major routes, the knowledge was fully embedded.
"Now, of course, the knowledge has been embedded one stage further. In our cars (and in new cars, this can come as factory standard) we have satellite Global Positioning Systems (GPS) systems, which contain full and detailed knowledge of the cross-country routes. You can sit in your driveway in Manhattan, enter an address in San Diego, and the GPS system will navigate you from door to door. You need no map, you need no road signs, the need for human decision making is minimised. The knowledge of whether to turn right or left is provided to you, a few 100 metres before the turning. Some systems will even warn you of hold-ups and congestion, and re-route you. Lewis and Clark would have been amazed. However, to access this knowledge you need the GPS system and you need access to the current GPS reference maps, otherwise it may still try to lead up a road that is no longer there, or over a bridge that was replaced a few months ago".
We can see from the story how, as the knowledge matures, the management approach changes as follows
1. Knowledge creation and innovation (though based on a full review of current knowledge)
2. Knowledge held by few experts (for whom this knowledge was linked to personal status)
3. Knowledge held by community (provided they are willing to share it with outsiders)
4. Knowledge codified in documents (maps, available at the point of need, but you can go "off the map" - into areas where you need to ask teh community for detaqiled knowledge)
5. Knowledge embedded in the infrastructure (very useful for major routes, but you can still get onto "unmarked backroads" - areas where knowledge is not embedded and you need the codified or community knowledge)
6. Knowledge embedded with the user (the ultimate knowledge solution, provided you have the newest version).
Let me know if you would like a full reprint of the article.
Posted by Nick Milton at 19:40