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FMI Quarterly/December 2013/December 1, 2013

The New Watson: Knowledge Management in the Age of Big Data

businesscharacter10_imageMost agree that it burned at least once. Whether by accident or on purpose, it finally burned down and all is thought lost. The Royal Library of Alexandria, established circa 283 B.C. by pharaoh Ptolomy II Soter, successor to Alexander the Great, was one of the most complete libraries in the world for many centuries. Scholars mourn the loss of what is estimated to be more than 400,000 scrolls containing a wealth of knowledge from ships logs to the works of Aristotle, Archimedes, Eratosthenes and Ptolemy.

Massive and important as the Library at Alexandria was, all the information in the library, converted to text, would fit on the new terabyte-sized hard drives on your laptop. The Library of Congress, according to Wikipedia, has digitized “235 terabytes of data” and “adds about 5 terabytes per month.” In the age of electronics, the database is becoming the modern synonym for the older idea of a library. While the Library of Congress is said to have the largest database in the world, one might find it surprising that institutions like the CIA, YouTube, Google, AT&T, Sprint and Amazon rank in the top 10 and are growing exponentially.1

In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell patented the first invention that would lead to the telephone. In 2011 IBM’s artificial intelligence computer named Watson won the well-known game show, “Jeopardy.” The invention of modern communications and computers has led to the global Internet and the abilities to capture and share information almost instantaneously anywhere in the world and by almost anyone in the world. IBM’s Watson is an example of the coming capabilities to capture and analyze that data to answer questions much more complex that those on “Jeopardy” and ultimately help to solve big problems. Nonetheless, the real understanding of all this information is still in the realm of human brainpower. That is also the case when one is considering building a knowledge management system (KMS). The hardware is important, but it is still up to people to build it and, more importantly, understand and use it.

TURNING DATA INTO UNDERSTANDING AND ACTION

The amount of data being collected and stored today is beyond mind-boggling. Nevertheless, despite all those bytes of data, can we call all that stuff, stored in the clouds and in highly secure databanks, knowledge? Several experts note the importance of making distinctions among the terms “data,” “information,” “knowledge” and “understanding.”

According to Russell Ackoff, a systems theorist and professor of organizational change, “Data is raw. It simply exists and has no significance beyond its existence (in and of itself.) Information is data that has been given meaning by way of relational connection. Knowledge is the appropriate collection of information, such that its intent is to be useful. Knowledge is a deterministic process. When someone “memorizes” information (as less-aspiring, test-bound students often do), then they have amassed knowledge. Understanding is an interpolative and probabilistic process. It is cognitive and analytical. It is the process by which one can take knowledge and synthesize new knowledge from the previously held knowledge. The difference between understanding and knowledge is the difference between “learning” and “memorizing.” People who have understanding can undertake useful actions because they can synthesize new knowledge or, in some cases, at least new information, from what is previously known (and understood). That is, understanding can build upon currently held information, knowledge and understanding itself.”2

The importance in the above distinctions is that, for data to become useful and rise to the level of understanding, it needs to go through the process of becoming information that is combined to become knowledge, which can in turn be analyzed and published or discussed at the level of understanding. One may win Jeopardy on the basis of memorization of knowledge, but in business or science, the real benefit of knowledge is to elevate it to the level of understanding that can lead to action and the creation of new knowledge. Understanding and action should be the focus when considering the design of a successful KMS. However, it is important to ask who will do the understanding and who will take action. The user base and company culture are the factors that will make or break a knowledge management system; there are no longer any real limitations in the world of data storage and retrieval. We have the technology, as they say, but can we understand how to use it?

Most business organizations today have databases that can be searched to provide information. Customer lists, accounting records, estimating data, job records and personnel history can all be programmed to provide a stack of periodic reports. Some of those reports are necessary and useful, and others are just time-consuming ways to make work and fill up files. It is the task of some people to keep the databases cranking out reports, but it may not be their job to determine the necessity or usefulness of those reports. However, most canned reports are not readily searchable when the information sought is beyond the norm, that is, more freestyle inquiries like, “compare the costs of construction crews working for customers in the Southeast with the rate of project payments.” An unusual question used for the sake of example, perhaps, but we can make inquiries of this nature using most modern Internet search engines, so why not be able to do this with the information generated in our own company? Depending on what is asked and how it is asked, one can get responses ranging from garbage to the exact information required. Sometimes it may take hours to wade through the results of an Internet search, but that is nothing compared to having to spend several days going through old paper files, traveling to the library and/or making 20 phone calls to find what you need.

One of the first things people notice when trying to get more information from their internal databases is that the various repositories of data do not “talk” to each other. That is, they are not relational or even connected. If a firm has a number of offices across the country, it is likely no single person (or computer) in the company knows what data is being kept. This is not only duplication of effort, but, more importantly, it amounts to information hoarding, whether intentional or not, and does not make the best use of vital knowledge within the company.

For contractors, the question of how to get the entire firm’s vital information in one searchable and useful database arose more frequently when CAD, and now BIM, software was introduced to the construction process. Once the technology was available to create and change electronic drawings that are available to anyone who needs to know, it was a short step to see the benefits in tying together the information for drawings, materials, project documentation, scheduling, “as builts” and maintenance records. The advantage of having one big project database is the Holy Grail of information control, but there are still gigabytes of information back in the office that are not yet searchable or even in electronic format.

Probably the most important repositories of untapped knowledge are in the minds of key internal experts and seasoned veterans. Only in the movies can we hook electrodes to their brains and download their life histories. However, there are a number of less threatening and more useful ways to capture that knowledge and experience beyond the normal benefit of having them on staff. For one, there is mentoring, which pairs your best people with those of the next generation that will one day take their place. Another way that provides some real knowledge to help build a useful KMS is to involve the veterans in creating special reports or opinion pieces on selected topics or problems that can be available to others in the company as needed. This approach is not just for those seasoned veterans, but also for anyone in the firm who needs to take his or her understanding to the next level. This approach takes advantage of all of the information inside the firm and outside resources as needed. In fact, it is a good first step toward determining the needs of a KMS within the firm. As these reports are generated, ask how long they took, what information was needed that was difficult to obtain, what the results were of the research, whether the information was used in the field, etc., in order to fine-tune the process.

ENTER KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT

The challenges of managing files and getting one database to link with others fall mostly in the realm of the IT department. The solutions are largely software-based, time-consuming and expensive. Unfortunately, this is where many companies start when it is determined that “we need a knowledge management system.” The software becomes the star of the show. Largely, this is because most advancement seems to be in the realm of software and hardware, and if you ask the IT department to build a KMS, this is what it knows about. However, this approach is likely the reason so many attempts at creating knowledge management systems become costly failures or have less-than-the-desired results with greater-than- the-budgeted expense. The following definition of knowledge management is from a recent article citing earlier work from the Gartner Group:

Knowledge management is a discipline that promotes an integrated approach to identifying, capturing, evaluating, retrieving and sharing all of an enterprise’s information assets. These assets may include databases, documents, policies, procedures, and previously uncaptured expertise and experience in individual workers.3

While this is a good starting definition, one thing it leaves out is the creation of knowledge that leads to understanding what is useful to the organization. Does the firm spend the time and money to collect every jot and tittle the organization produces or receives? Actually, with the comparatively low cost of data storage these days, this is more and more feasible; but if it means more data entry, say at the field level, then think twice about what data needs to be recorded and saved for future retrieval. Consider also whether that information is readily available from other sources, such as weather history or stock market data. Most data has a shelf life, so think about how long to keep it and how often it should be updated.

Whether you are creating a dynamic knowledge management system or just improving an electronic filing system, there are large amounts of information that a business needs to save and easily retrieve for legal, financial reporting and regulatory compliance reasons. This information includes accounting records, safety records, employment data, health insurance records, a mountain of project data and drawings, and other information depending on the types of business and regulatory statutes. Most businesses these days have converted to electronic document control systems to capture, store and retrieve this information. However, those systems do not become part of a knowledge management system until they are somehow linked and the information can be searched and retrieved on an ad hoc basis as needed and then analyzed to give answers for business advantage. This may include compliance to new regulations as well as data mining to understand marketing prospects or production efficiencies, etc.

Whether electronic or not, database technology can quickly become outdated as we enter the era of big data where every bit and byte of information possible is collected for later analysis. In times when profit on a job is hard to come by, all of this information processing is expensive and can be difficult to justify. Therefore, when you say, “We need a knowledge management system around here,” also ask the following questions:

  • What is meant by “knowledge” (as opposed to data management, for instance)?
  • What problems would a knowledge management system solve?
  • Who needs what information, and how fast do they need it?
  • What is the cost (consider start-up, maintenance and system life expectations)?
  • How will the effectiveness of a knowledge management system be measured?
  • How will the knowledge base be safeguarded?
  • Will our people use it and contribute to its updating and maintenance, etc.?

These are just a few places to start. All are important, but the last question is maybe the most significant and most likely to be overlooked until after the new system is in place. Ultimately, as in the definitions provided, data and information are not knowledge until analyzed, shared and useful to further the understanding, which might lead to improving processes, better business development, process efficiency, research and development and so on. If you poke around the organization, there is a wealth of knowledge available right now, but it is locked in the memories of inside experts and senior staff, or it is maintained in protected silos for job security or prestige. Employees have created their own proprietary systems to help them manage their own or the department’s knowledge, but it is not easily shared, because the company culture does not encourage or reward that type of collaboration. Consider that an employee has spent hours and years gaining some particular knowledge that gives him or her an edge over others in their position. Why should he or she just hand it over to someone else who has never done the work? That is a good question and the answer goes beyond the obvious: “Because they are employees and that information is the property of the firm.” If not handled carefully and the desired behavior rewarded, such attitudes will continue, and the advantages of that knowledge will be lost.

The burning of the Royal Library of Alexandria was an historical tragedy, but it is more than just the cautionary tale of a failure to have backups. We think of what could have been done with all of that knowledge; how much would it have contributed to our knowledge of the past? In business, if we lose or cannot access the knowledge that is all around us, we lose the advantage of learning and the use of that knowledge to improve our services, products, processes and, ultimately, success. We are now going beyond the information age to the next age of big data, data mining and analysis that will create new solutions to huge problems. The largest organizations are grappling with these issues now and taking advantage of them. The technology is not so big that medium to smaller organizations cannot take advantage of it as well. “Watson — come here.” We have a few questions.


Phil Warner is a research consultant with FMI Corporation. He can be reached at 919.785.9357 or via email at pwarner@fminet.com.

1 Retrieved from: http://beyondrelational.com/modules/1/justlearned/0/tips/9212/top-10-largest-databases-in-the-world.aspx
2 Bellinger, G., Castro, D. & Mills, A. “Data, Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom” Retrieved from http://www.systemsthinking.org./dikw/dikw.htm.
3 Koenig, M. (2012). “What is KM? Knowledge Management Explained.” Retrieved from http://www.kmworld.com/Articles/Editorial/What-Is-…/What-is-KM-Knowledge-Management-Explained-82405.aspx

 

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