Tuesday 12 June 2018

A new way to look at knowledge and information

The relationship between knowledge and information has always been problematical. Here is a new way to look at it.

The Data/Information/Knowledge/Wisdom pyramid is a very common diagram in the KM world, but despite its ubiquity and simplicity it has many problems:
Why don't we set the DIKW pyramid aside, and also set aside the assumption that information and knowledge are somehow two mutually exclusive classes of the same sort of thing, and play with the idea that maybe information and knowledge are different sorts of thing, and not mutually exclusive. 

We can then draw a diagram such as the one below, dividing the world into Knowledge/Not Knowledge and Information/Not Information
At the top of this diagram are things that are Knowledge, and on the right are things that are Information. This gives us 4 quadrants.

  • Top left is Knowledge that is not Information. Here is Tacit knowledge; the things you know without realising. Also Implicit Knowledge (if you use that term) - the things you know and can express but have not yet expressed, or recorded, or documented.
  • Top right is Knowledge that is also Information. This is documented or codified knowledge - documents that transfer knowledge; that teach, instruct, advise, educate, and otherwise give people the ability to act. They contain the things you would say if you were to express your tacit knowledge. Here are your recipes, your tips and hints, your guidance notes, training material, best practices, standard operating procedures and checklists. 
  • Bottom right is Information that is not Knowledge. Here are records and documents that do not teach, instruct, advise, or educate. Here are minutes of meetings, or invoices, or contracts. 
  • Bottom left is everything else. Data sits in this box, but so do clouds and kittens and rocks.

Does this diagram work?

To test whether it works, try an analogy. Instead of Knowledge, write Music. You then have the 4 quadrants of "Music but not Information" which includes performed music, or music you hear in your head, "Music and Information" which includes sheet music as well as the files in your iPod, "Information but not music" which includes records and other sorts of files, and "Everything else".

There is a philosophical argument that Music is not Music until it is performed or played, and that in recorded form it is information containing a sort of "potential music"  (much as a battery contains potential energy), but this is unhelpful as it is, for sure, a specific type of information dedicated to the transmission of music. 

There is an identical philosophical argument that Knowledge is not Knowledge until it is held by a human, and that in recorded form it is information containing a sort of "potential knowledge"  (much as a battery contains potential energy), but this is unhelpful as it is, for sure, a specific type of information dedicated to the transmission of Knowledge.

Is this diagram helpful?

The diagram is helpful when it comes to mapping out the limits of Knowledge Management and Information Management, as shown in the diagram below.

Knowledge Management covers the top two boxes of the diagram, ensuring that the content of the knowledge and the conversations around this content are clear, accurate, comprehensive, valid, and helpful, and that this knowledge is accessible to those who need it, in the form they need it, and at the place and time they need it. 

Information Management covers the two right hand boxes, ensuring that the Information is structured, stored, owned, tagged, findable and retrievable.

In the top right hand box, documented knowledge is managed by both disciplines. Knowledge Management addresses the contents of the documents, while Information Management covers the containers - the documents and files themselves. Information Management and Knowledge Management are not mutually exclusive disciplines, they are overlapping disciplines.

I think that last point is the most valuable outcome of looking at information and knowledge in this different way; the point that Information Management and Knowledge Management are complementary and overlapping, that they overlap in the realm where knowledge is also information and information is also knowledge (even though you might argue it is Potential Knowledge), and that they manage this area in different ways.

With this view point we can avoid some of the dualistic and mechanistic thinking of the past, and start to understand how these two disciplines interact.

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