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Knowledge is Power – But Only Sometimes in BI December 1, 2006

Posted by Cyril Brookes in General, Tacit (soft) information for BI.
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The management, or exchange, of soft (tacit) information (knowledge) is a current focal point in the BI space and we hear the ubiquitous quote frequently.  Unfortunately, knowledge isn’t always power, in fact it’s rather like Francis Bacon’s original Latin version:  Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est (my favored translation is: For knowledge, too, is itself a power).  

The indefinite article makes all the difference.   

Two interesting papers on the Knowledge is BI Power theme I’ve read lately are: Do we need internal knowledge markets?  by Jean Graef of the Montague Institute and  Making a market in knowledge is Lowell Bryan’s (McKinsey & Co) contribution.  Graef summarizes the Bryan article as follows: 

According to  Bryan, most companies have tried one of three approaches to managing knowledge with “mixed success.” (1) Technology alone doesn’t work because most corporate documents are out of date, poorly written, and can’t be easily “parsed” (read) by computer software. (2) Content “pushed” to employees by a centralized staff of communicators doesn’t work because “it’s not very valuable to most frontline employees.” (3) Allowing each business unit the freedom to manage its own knowledge works “because it facilitates exchange among small groups of workers with common interests,” but it “provides just a fraction of the potential benefits of exchanging knowledge on a company-wide scale.” 

Bryan’s solution is an internal knowledge market, which he defines as “the exchange of items of value among parties who don’t know each other.” 

Key qualifiers of knowledge’s potency in the BI context include, in my experience: 

  • Not all knowledge has value 
  • Knowledge’s value is ephemeral 
  • Most valuable soft knowledge is tacit 
  • Knowledge must be explicit to be useful in BI 
  • Knowledge is often spread over several minds 
  • Just-in-time collaboration is needed to create required knowledge 
  • If knowledge is not categorized it cannot be shared 
  • Categorization must be according to a vocabulary (taxonomy) of standard terms 
  • Context impacts both value and implications of knowledge 

Importantly, people who want to know something don’t know if it exists, and those who know it don’t know if it is useful, or to whom.  Even if the knowledge does exist in some useable explicit form, it often requires some facilitator to bring its relevance to the people who need it.  Some form of context dependent information push is therefore desirable. 

The central thrust of my argument is that many commentators appear to assume that the knowledge to be shared, managed, marketed, exchanged or whatever, actually exists in tangible form.  In my experience, the most valuable knowledge is most often created through collaboration between two or more minds at the time it is required to be utilized.   

Authors can be encouraged and motivated to make explicit their tacit knowledge;  if they know they know it.   Editors can review and collate knowledge that is already explicit. 

 It is my view that the real issue to be resolved in the business enterprise is the stimulation of knowledge creation as and when it’s required, say in response to a new problem or the resurfacing of an old problem.   

I don’t believe that a market approach is sufficient, but definitely incentives are required.  These ought include corporate recognition awards that counteract the natural cultural barriers that limit collaborative inclination among staff. 

A second theme of mine is the need to recognize that there are three types of BI related knowledge available, or being created, in a business enterprise (Independent; Qualification and Reference).  They have different power attributes, and require different treatment in the sharing context.  I’ve discussed these in some detail in an earlier post. 

To summarize my opinion on how to maximize knowledge collaboration: 

  • Stimulation via news and industry related feeds is a critical starting point for commentary that leads to knowledge creation 
  • Subject experts who add value are key elements of the collaboration scene; they separate the value from the dross 
  • Escalation of the more important discussion threads, to a wider readership, is necessary since not all items have same value to the enterprise 
  • The reward mechanism is critical, as discussed 
  • Work-shopping of intelligence ought be facilitated to overcome the natural reluctance of people to share information they are not sure about with those they do not know. 
  • Categorization of knowledge items is essential, and should be done according to a vocabulary of standard terms. 
  • Knowledge is certainly one power in BI , but not always.

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