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What Can You Capture? September 25, 2009

Posted by Chuck Musciano in Random Musings.
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There is a lot of discussion these days on the topic of “knowledge capture.”  Recognizing that there is a lot of intellectual capital locked in the heads of employees, companies seek tools that will make it easier to find, categorize, and ultimately share this information.  This is particularly important in industries where an aging workforce is retiring and taking a lifetime of knowledge with them.

As wonderful as it sounds, I don’t think knowledge capture is possible.  Certainly not in the sense that it can be published and managed like a vast database, to be perused by those not yet enlightened.  We are trying to treat knowledge like data, and that’s just not possible.

We have no problem capturing data.  Data is nothing more than facts, collected and indexed.  We have data streaming at us all the time, and computers are great at grabbing and storing all that data.  We also have great tools for searching all this data.  Google is the pre-eminent example; given a vast database of facts regarding which web page contains certain terms, Google will quickly tell you which pages match your query.

Stepping up from data, we have information.  Information is data, correlated.  Thus, a collection of temperature readings across the country is simply data.  Those readings, correlated to produce areas of equal temperature, become information that will expose patterns that the individual data elements cannot disclose.

We have many tools to turn data into information, loosely grouped into that class of applications known as “business intelligence.”  Depending on the usefulness of the tools, the correlated information may prove valuable or useless.  Google is notoriously hit-or-miss on this; searches for certain phrases can yield bizarre search results, because Google cannot extend a clean semantic model onto the queries it services.  For example, this blog gets hit on a daily basis by searches on “Scarlett O’Hara” because I once wrote one post about her.  I am pretty sure that those seeking Scarlett are not looking for IT management advice, yet Google keeps delivering that result.

Google keeps making that error because it lacks knowledge.  Knowledge is the result of placing information into the hands of someone with relevant skills and experience.  With knowledge, information becomes useful.  In our temperature example, the information represented by the temperature gradients allows a trained meteorologist to figure out when it might rain.  In the hands of a lay person, it is just an interesting picture.

You can argue that some knowledge can be captured; that’s why we have books.  I’d agree, but define what was captured as “shallow knowledge:” the part of knowledge that is close to the information, that involves repeatable activities, easily described.  I can read a book and learn calculus, but knowing how to apply the calculus to a problem is far deeper and more intuitive.  That’s “deep knowledge:” the complex ideas that knowledge capture seeks to document and categorize.

Regrettably, deep knowledge is almost impossible to capture.  Consider the knowledge required to drive a car.  Could you write down everything you know about driving?  Could you even say it all?  Absolutely not.  The core of driving, what makes you good at it, was learned by practice and observation, absorbing lessons that are unspoken.

So it is with all deep knowledge.  Imagine trying to write down how to negotiate with a vendor: reading body language, verbal cues, etc.  You can’t; you learn it by watching a skilled negotiator.  Even the skilled negotiator may not be able to express what they do; they just “know.”

The ease of data capture and the improvements in deriving information imply that the next level, knowledge capture, is possible and even easy. I contend it is not; while some rote knowledge may be captured, really important knowledge is only learned over time through continuous exposure to a master, much like a traditional apprenticeship.  Our fascination with tools misleads us into thinking that there is a tool for everything; I don’t know that there is a tool for true, deep knowledge capture. I think that the real answer is one I’ve promoted before: know who knows, and learn from them before they are gone.

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