Its information to data we need, not DIKW

May 12, 2010

I had a fascinating ad hoc meeting with various US Army KM people in Washington just over a week ago discussing some of the new capabilities and understandings we have gained over the last few years. Military people tend to learn fast, and one of the key findings from Iraq (My report from a prior meeting here) was that Platoon Commanders blogging had a higher impact than doctrine. The fragmented micro-narratives of day to day living are a more valuable form of knowledge than synthesised and aggregated data. Close connections there with a project I am running for West Point to move on the highly successful experience of Company Commander into a full use of micro-narrative, potentially leading to peer to peer knowledge flows without mediation.

I’m also starting to think through some new material to summarise the last five years of learning in preparation for an open (but limited places)morning seminar on KM that I will be running in Newcastle on the 24th May. In effect my seven basic principles stand, but there are a few things that we need to emphasise and here are three to be going on with.

  • For the best part of a century we have been trying to move data into information. Some people have then tried to make information into knowledge and a few charlatans have attempted a transformation to wisdom, thus marking themselves out as the antithesis of the wise. With the capability of modern technology to augment human intelligence (but not replace it), we are increasingly moving in the other direction. Breaking up information into its source data and allowing messy, but coherent real time assembly in the context of need. Information carries too many assumptions to allow it to be context free, while data has more fluidity and adaptability. This is a huge change, partly enabled, heralded and driven by the rise of social computing but it is far more than that. It changes the way we think about the world, increases the focus on concrete, embodied knowledge that was achieved through apprentice systems such as the knowledge boys in the London Taxi service. Technology augmentation reduces the cost and time to achieve these results, however the engineering focus on treating humans as widgets and trying to replace rather than augment explains many of the KM failures (and there have been a lot).
  • One consequence of this shift is that we increase the ability of an organisation to absorb rather than reduce uncertainty. I briefly mentioned this the other day in the context of arguing for a switch from strategies focused on robustness to ones that emphasis resilience. We need to ability to rapidly adapt, blending material with contextual triggers. We should modularize to encourage exaptation, a point brilliantly made by Brian Arthur in his book The Nature of Technology. but if we put into too much structure (increase the constraints) then we loose adaptive capacity.
  • Collective intelligence, knowledge existing in the flows between people and objects, has been neglected for far too long. Successful knowledge sharing has always been a characteristic of crews, but attempts to transfer that into a more tradition organisation focus on the form of the practice, rather than the emergent nature of the structure. Its the big mistake in Weick and Sutcliffe’s Managing the Unexpected . Crews work because people are trained into role and role expectation and occupy those roles for limited periods of time. The transfer into role is highly ritualised which changes the cognitive processing function of the brain. A crew has more cognitive capacity than its individuals possess of themselves, and prior knowledge of people is not a necessity. The focus on behaviour, which KM inherited from organisation change is a fundamental and distracting error.

I should have this worked up by Newcastle and will aim (subject to agreement with the sponsor) to podcast it. For the moment all comments welcome.

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

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