The Emperor’s Chess Board

August 3, 2008

Interesting conversations in Washington a week ago, some traffic on ActKM and the odd email brought the question of national KM (especially in the context of security) to mind late last night and I resolved to blog it this morning, although it will be in two parts. I have a minor paid advisory role in respect of the subject by the way to declare an interest of sorts. One of the main triggers to write the news of a well intentioned but sadly misguided proposal which has outlined a prescription for a consistent, centralized application of KM across US Federal government. In part the justification for this is a running claim that failures such as 9/11 and Katrina are in effect failures of knowledge management. Words like standards are also being bandied about which is always a bad sign and one gets a very real sniff of a bureaucracy in the worst sense of the word and some nice comfortable jobs that will up people’s profile on the conference circuit.

Now I remember when the 9-11 Commission Report came out we had similar talk and it all involved re-organisations, data sharing etc. all based on the benefits of hindsight. When you look backwards its fairly easy to see what should have been done, but as I have said many times hindsight does not lead to foresight. Now I remember a conference call at the time the report was published in connection with out DARPA work and several of us had noticed that the conclusions of the Commission Report were similar to those of the Challenger Disaster (1986), namely a failure of knowledge (well really information) management. However the report on the Columbia Disaster (2003) basically said that all of the right information was in front of the right people, put they simply didn’t pay attention to it. The buzz on the conference call was that the same mistakes, based on the same false & idealistic assumptions about the capability of knowledge management, were (and have been) made post 9-11 as were made post Challenger.

In effect the argument, which is common one in knowledge management, was that the failure was one of not connecting the dots, not realising the significance of key data items early enough. The idea is that we create bigger and bigger databases with more search algorithms, centralise functions, standardise procedures, appoint an obergruppenführer and somehow or other no future errors will be made. Now anyone who argues that dots can be joined up in a human system in this way is either a poor mathematician or has failed to read the right stories when young, Let me share with you the story of the Emperor’s Chess Board, courtesy of Eurekas and Euphorias.

According to legend, a Chinese Emperor asked a sage what reward he would require in return for an important service. The sage named his price: nothing more than some rice, two grains to be placed on the first square of a chessboard, four on the second, eight on the third, and so on. A modest demand, the Emperor thought, and happily agreed; but he had failed to grasp the principle of geometric progressions. The entire rice crop of the empire would have had to go on a single square, long before the sixty fourth was reached.

The actual number if you want it is 264/1 1.844674E19 and the same point is made well by Boisot who makes it more explicit in this paper. He points out that four dots have six linkages, which means a total of sixty four patterns that can form. ten dots gives 3.5 trillion and twelve 4,700 quadrillion. How many dots are there in a human system? How many possible patterns? OK hindsight is a wonderful thing as the significant dots and the linkages are now visible, but in respect of foresight? Forget it. Remember Lincoln? He said in his second annual message to Congress in 1862 As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country. Never a truer word more greatly ignored in government and most certainly ignored by those presenting the same old tired solutions of centralised knowledge management?

So what should we do? Well I will address that in part II tomorrow

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