Tuesday, July 26, 2005

"Know How"... It's not Scottish

I have severe reservations about the Economist Intelligence Unit white paper, "Know how: Managing knowledge for competitive advantage":
  1. Conflation of Business Intelligence (BI) and Knowledge Management (KM). I would argue that these two technologies/strategies represent very different things. BI is essentially the technology and practice of integrating and interpreting transaction data. The base of BI is always numbers collected in some manner. The base of KM is something different but we're not sure what this something is. Indeed, articulating the base of KM is a key aspect of the current problem facing decision makers.
  2. The importance of accuracy. In terms of knowledge management, "accuracy" is a loaded word. I find it remarkable that as the volume of data available to decision makers increases--just look at the data storage market--they are struggling to find the right information. Pundits have claimed that the quality of information has to be improved: it needs to be more accurate or be of higher quality. Metaphorically, this argument assumes that there is a very valuable information needle contained within a haystack of data. A more appropriate description may be that there is a large pile of needles, some of which are better than others. A manufacturer would create standards and quality initiatives to sort the right ones from the wrong ones. Knowledge management is the informational cousin of this sorting process; it focusses on the process, not on the information itself.
  3. Schlumberger. It's completely unsurprising that Schlumberger would meet with KM success. The cause of that success may be less related to the actual initiative than the underlying culture. Schlumberger has always excelled at extracting and using information. Bowker describes how they essentially established a grid of classification and organization that could be imposed upon any geographic location in the world. The corporate culture would certainly support similar initiatives within Schlumberger's own social location.
  4. Sarbanes-Oxley. What's good for the investor may not be good for the information user. SOX has forced public companies to be excessively diligent about both the data they collect and the way in which they collect the data. Section 404 ensures that executives have fully auditable processes in place for collecting and using data. Unfortunately, it doesn't help them separate needles from hay. Furthermore, SOX has been bolted on to existing standards for financial reporting. The affordances and constraints of these standards shape the ways in which public companies actually "know" their environment.
  5. Collecting tactical data. That's the problem with the tacit: it's tacit. Fingertip knowledge inherently evades classification and description. Some tasks--such as sales or carpentry--involve a high level of performance that can only be honed through doing. Best practices may assist employees in this performance but companies pay little attention to the ways in which things get done. Instead, they focus on just getting them done. Few organizations support the required documentary practices of anthropologists or sociologists. Concepts such as epistemology, methodology, and ontology have little place in the modern organization.
  6. Information requirements. It's a funny thing to pre-establish information requirements. Information inherently leads to other requirements resulting in a vicious cycle of data needs. How do people know what information they need to answer questions they don't yet have? A better approach may be to ask what questions need answered. It may seem old fashioned, but the whole notion of hypothesis, test, and proove is quite valuable. The questions for researchers and executives concern how we create hypotheses and how we create proof (i.e., testimony, community, oligarchy, apparatus, classification, etc.).
  7. Mobile delivery. The issue of mobile technology and KM bothers me. And I don't know why. Mobiles have crucial affordance i.e., delivery documents directly and ubiquitously to the user. The problem concerns what people actually do with the information on their mobile. It may be available but it is not useful. Individuals cannot use mobile devices as part of negotiation; people can't share concepts and symbols communaly with a mobile; an individual doesn't use a mobile to write a paper or prepare a report--better tools exist for that kind of thing. So do people do with a mobile: make calls, get their email...

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