Monday 17 January 2022

The difference between curated knowledge and synthesised knowledge, and why this is important

There are two approaches to managing a body of knowledge within a community of practice - curation, and synthesis.

One of the functions of a community of practice is to provide a means for developing and co-owning a documented "body of knowledge" on behalf of the community (the other function is to provide a means for dialogue and discussion, particularly question-led discussion, which allows access to the undocumented body of knowledge). 

Members of the community can offer pieces of knowledge such as lessons experiences and good practices, and the community as a whole (or the Subject Matter Experts within the community) builds this into a collected set of community knowledge. 

There are two ways to do this - through curation and through synthesis, and many of the most effective communities do both. 

Curation is the organisation of a set of artefacts or assets on behalf of the users. A Librarian curates a collection of books in a library, a museum archivist curates a collection of fossils, or paintings, or historical objects.  Similarly a community can curate a set of documents. 

Curation involves bringing together and organising documents
  • In one place (a common folder or common register in “community space”) 
  • Tagged 
  • Prioritised 
  • Structured in a useful way (by practice or activity, not by document type, project, date, author etc)
  • Maintained, with obsolete material removed
As an example of curation, see the NASA spaceport "body of knowledge" - a curated set of documents on spaceport operations. For example, you can see all the documents related to SpacePort operations, such as all the annual reports from Cape Canaveral and New Mexico.

Synthesis is the summarisation and documentation of knowledge, creating new content based on existing documents. So it is more than curating documents, it is combining, summarising, snynthesising them, removing duplication and contradiction,

Synthesis involves bringing together and summarising knowledge

  • In one document or group of documents
  • Organised 
  • Structured in a useful way 
  • Updated 
  • No duplication 
  • Validated by an expert or a community of practice.
We can see an example of Synthesis - a page on Airspace Infringement from the Aviation Skybrary wiki which contains a synthesis of knowledge, followed by a list of source documents and further reading, and links to key tools such as the Airspace Infringement Prevention Toolkit.  Wikis are often the preferred technology to support knowledge synthesis.

Why synthesise knowledge?

The benefit of synthesising knowledge is to make the knowledge far easier to consume and assimilate by the reader/user. Instead of having to wade through a curated list of source documents, resolving contradictions and removing duplications as they go, the work has already been done on behalf of the user by the CoP or by SMEs within the community. There is an investment of work in creating the synthesis, but it saves every user from having to redo the synthesis themselves. So a Pilot or Air Controller can access best practice in Airspace Infringement Prevention directly from the synthesised source, while a SpacePort operator still needs to read though multiple annual reports looking for best practices to follow.

Once the synthesised knowledge exists, then updating is is fairly simple. New knowledge, new CoP discussions, new lessons can all be added to the synthesised knowledge, for example as wiki edits. 

Many communities of practice combine synthesis and curation, with a wiki (containing synthesised knowledge) supported by a community library. 

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