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TECH TALK: Harnessing Information: Four Views

October 23rd, 2001 · No Comments

The challenge of managing information is intense. There is something wrong when one has to look at 200-odd emails a day, and the only thing that seems to work well is “the less you send, the less you will receive.” Our own information sits somewhere in the hierarchy of the “My Documents” folder and the evergrowing collection of emails. Google covers a lot of the Web, but that is still not good enough for us to find quickly what we need. Within the enterprise, knowledge is dispersed in databases and the experiences of people. As we examine the various issues related to harnessing information, it is interesting to consider different views on this issue.

An extract from a IDC White Paper highlights the problems of data access:

Data access involves getting a complete, understandable, and relevant answer every time you ask a question. Think of the difference between asking an expert versus asking a librarian for information. Current data-access systems are good librarians. Effective data-access systems need to be more like experts. Why is effective data access challenging? We see four major factors:

Data volume. Today, Google can index and search about 1.5 billion Web pages – impressive but less than half of the Web. The Web is still growing at nearly an exponential rate, and most corporate data is not on the Web but is sequestered in diverse and private data stores.

Data diversity. Rich digital data – video, photo-graphs, images, unstructured text, audio, data from satellites and many other sensors – can help form a complete picture that approximates the real world. But most information systems are best suited to handle structured text, not rich and diverse data types.

Data context. Every business process consists of events. Every event occurs within a context – time, location, people involved, and so on. Information systems treat events as one-dimensional transactions, stripping contextual information.

Ever-changing users and processes. Increasingly, business processes involve not only employees but also a dynamic set of suppliers and customers. So, as processes and users change, information systems must change with them while still providing complete and pertinent data quickly.

Writes Kevin Werbach (Release 1.0) on Knowledge Management:

Knowledge management has traditionally suffered from the hubris of modernism: the belief that we can discover ultimate truths and organize the world according to rational principles using clever code. The idea was that we should capture and organize bits of “knowledge” in central databases. The people involved were relevant only as donors to the common ontology or as empty vessels into which knowledge could be poured.

Life – and business – doesn’t work that way. It’s messy, complex and subjective. Real workers have the disturbing habit of being human, so they refuse to change their behavior or to contribute metadata into a shared pool. And universal taxonomies are worthless if divorced from the subjective experience of those who use or generate that information.

Enter postmodern knowledge management. Postmodernism holds that our concept of reality is always warped by the lenses of individual subjectivity and group power dynamics. Therefore, postmodern KM can’t be about management at all, because management implies external control of some definable resource. Its goal is simpler yet deeper: leveraging people. Postmodern KM operates within and on the basis of existing behavior patterns, mining conversation streams and relationships automatically to incorporate structure and context into the information human users already manipulate. It fosters human intelligence and interaction rather than trying to replace them.

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