Making Knowledge Work

January 27, 2010

Knowledge vs Information

Filed under: Uncategorized — virginiahenry @ 2:50 pm

Catching up with some reading, I came across two articles – one headlined “A lot of knowledge is a dangerous thing” and the other, “You can never have too much knowledge”.

In the 16th January issue of the New Scientist, Paul Parsons was discussing what the philosopher Nick Bostrom calls “information hazard”– the potential dangers incurred  by the dissemination of  certain types of  information (such as publication on GenBank of the 1918 flu virus’ genome).  His brief examination of the cases for and against censorship made it clear that the piece was really about the potential misuse and misinterpretation of the wired world’s growing data resources.  In fact, using the MMR vaccine controversy as an example, he showed that ignorance really isn’t bliss.

A fascinating issue to explore, though, and it got me thinking about the similarities between “information hazard” and Alvin Toffler’s “information overload”……

The second article drew very clear distinctions between information and knowledge.  It was an interview with the knowledge and learning consultant Larry Prusak in the December ’09 issue of SLA’s  ‘Information Outlook’, in which he said that, while there can be too much information for an individual to absorb,  you can never have too much knowledge.  He reckons participation and experience are greater contributors to knowledge than information, and librarians in organisations should focus on finding people who know things rather than on finding documents.

What Mr Prusak says makes a lot of sense.  As a Knowledge Management Consultant, most people I’ve worked with find it more useful to be put in touch with someone who has the knowledge they need, rather than being directed to documents and reports relating to the issue. Admittedly that’s sometimes because the content templates or report formats on their knowledge intranets are over-complicated and lengthy (I’ve never understood why quantity can be so readily equated with quality). But it’s also because people rarely write as they speak:  the less formal, more vivid spoken word is easier to absorb and, as conversation is participative, knowledge-transfer is more readily achieved.

That’s one of the reasons that I use interview as a tool.  Another is this:  when someone in a global organisation has posted the case study of a highly-successful project they’ve led, they can find themselves inundated with calls from around the network.  Better to record a brief interview answering what are likely to be the FAQ’s and post the sound file alongside the case study. A third very good reason is linked to what was a much-used term in the KM world – knowledge ‘capture’.  What if the knowledge you need is in the head of an external Consultant, or an employee who’s moved on?  An interview with the individual, while the experience is still fresh in their mind, is a good way for the organisation to retain what might otherwise be lost.

And interviewing’s an enjoyable way to explore ideas and issues.  At tomorrow night’s LIKE the information behaviours of an Engineer and a Social Worker will be examined through interviews.  It should be fun – I’ll let you know.

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