Thursday 26 August 2010

Frozen pizzas of knowledge

frozen pizza
Originally uploaded by scottfeldstein
When I worked in the BP KM team, our concept of the structure of our "knowledge bank" or "knowledge base" evolved through time, through a process of trial and error. I shall describe three knowledge bank models, and illustrate them with the analogy of going to the shops to get the ingredients for a pizza.

Imagine ‘going to the shops so we can have pizza for supper’ as an analogy for ‘going to the knowledge bank so I can find knowledge to help my project’.

The first knowledge bank model we experimented with, I shall call the ‘Teenager’s bedroom’ model. This is a model where you dump everything in an unstructured bank, and rely on a good search engine, and/or good metadata tagging, to be able to find it again. It is like my son’s bedroom used to be; he knew where everything was - it was all on the floor! He could search through the pile of stuff and find what he needed - eventually. In the shopping analogy, this is like our grandparents going to an old-fashioned grocers store, with sacks all round the walls, and hams and salami hanging from the ceiling. If you want the ingredients for a pizza, you ask the grocer (the ‘search engine’) and he finds them for you. You go home and make the pizza. Those of us who have tried searching a poorly structured file server know how frustrating this model can be, and you will never find the things that you don't know to ask for - the things you don't know you need to know.

The second knowledge bank model is one of storing the knowledge in some sort of framework. However it is hard to create a framework which has longevity, and which can be understood by all users. In the shopping analogy, this is like the supermarkets our parents went to. Everything is on shelves, and when you get to know the supermarket, you know where to find the flour, the olive oil, the canned tomatoes, and the mozzarella. The drawbacks of this model are that the onus is still on the user, the shopper, to find the ingredients. If you don't know your way around the shop, or the knowledge bank, it is easy to become frustrated, and if the items are moved from one shelf to another, you need to search the whole store again. People generally will not look for knowledge for very long, and if they don't find it quickly, they will reinvent it. And once again, you never find the things you don’t look for. SharePoint can suffer from this - an uncontrolled SharePoint roll-out can result in a thousand new silos; like the thousand shelves of an unknown supermarket.

The third model is one where the knowledge is pre-packed for the benefit of the end user. The knowledge bank then contains a whole set of bundled and packaged units of knowledge; units that in Knoco we call ‘Knowledge Assets’. Each knowledge asset is designed to give the ‘knowledge customer;’ everything they need to be fully briefed before their project. In the shopping analogy, this is like you or I shopping for a pizza for supper. We will go to the supermarket, head for the freezer counter, and pick out a frozen pizza, already prepared. Or perhaps we will place an order by phone and have a pizza delivered to our front door. This third model, where the knowledge bank is full of pre-packaged knowledge (perhaps in the form of a well structured wiki), we have found to be far and away the most effective. It places the onus on the creators of the knowledge to do the packaging (and the Retrospect process leads naturally to packaged knowledge) so the knowledge user is given what they need to know, whether they are aware of that need or not.

The reason you have to do all the work for the user - all the packaging and structuring - all the preparation of the frozen pizza - was summed up by this Dr Johnson quote;

Mankind have a great aversion to intellectual labor; but even supposing knowledge to be easily attainable, more people would be content to be ignorant than would take even a little trouble to acquire it.

If you don't package the brain food for them, many users would rather go intellectually hungry.

1 comment:

Pancho said...

Interesting analogy. Though indeed the knowledge asset looks like an already prepared pizza, this wiki-pizza also comes with instructions on how you can make it with links to each ingredient and procedure. The pepperoni is linked to the cheese and the cheese is linked to the bread. And you can find right there how to make those too.

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