Let them eat the cake of knowledge

What are data, information, knowledge? – or wisdom, for that matter? How should we distinguish between them? – and why? And are such distinctions useful in a business context?

Sure, it’s an old theme, and one I’ve written about elsewhere – such as in an earlier post here on Data, information, knowledge, wisdom as dimensions rather than as a hierarchy or ‘stack’. But it’s a theme that’s well worth revisiting, and it came up again today, in a comment by Jeremy Sluyters on an excellent article by Luis Suares about Defining Knowledge Management and Enterprise 2.0 – Sharing Your Story. Jeremy quotes knowledge-management guru David Gurteen’s ‘cake metaphor‘ on data, information and knowledge:

An analysis of its molecular constituents is data – for most purposes not very useful – you may not even be able to tell it were a cake. A list of ingredients is information – more useful – an experienced cook could probably make the cake – the data has been given context. The recipe though would be knowledge – written knowledge – explicit knowledge – it tells you how-to make the cake. An inexperienced cook however, even with the recipe might not make a good cake. A person, though, with relevant knowledge, experience, and skill – knowledge in their heads – not easily written down – tacit knowledge – would almost certainly make an excellent cake from the recipe.

In a video on the same Luis Suares, Nick Milton comments that:

Nick Milton: knowledge is the factor that allows you to take effective action – allows you to make the right decision and do the right thing
KM is a means to ensure that people have the knowledge they need to make the correct decision – it’s a lot more than just providing them with information or data, it’s providing them with _capability_, with know-how

Knowledge is the factor that allows you to take effective action – allows you to make the right decision and do the right thing. Knowledge-management is a means to ensure that people have the knowledge they need to make the correct decision.

So it’s a lot more than just providing them with information or data. It’s about providing them with capability, with “know-how” and the like, so that they can use the information and data.

Yet there’s another dimension that needs to be added to this metaphor: we might call it ‘wisdom’, though more accurately it’s the why of the cake. What’s its purpose, its ‘business-case’ and suchlike? Why this type of cake, and not any other? – a fruitcake, wedding-cake, cattle-cake, whatever? How would we assess its ‘fitness for purpose’? Without some solid grasp of these, there’s not much point in making the cake at all – or even for collecting recipes of cakes, which, metaphorically speaking, is just about all that many so-called ‘knowledge-management systems’ ever do…

There also need to be some serious questions about quality. In knowledge-management, these concerns about quality echo all the way down to the root-data. Using the cake analogy, the quality of the ingredients will matter, a lot – and though we can use ingredients of varying qualities, they do need to be ‘fit for purpose’. We’d probably always prefer perfect quality, perhaps, but that’s hardly a realistic request in the real world. And there are times, for example, when we might happily trade-off higher quality for speed and convenience – an instant cake-mix, perhaps, or a boxed cake from the frozen-foods counter. However, we do need to be aware that we’ve done such trade-offs, and to adjust our expectations accordingly.

I’ve had a forceful reminder of this over the past couple of days’ whilst browsing on the BBC’s invaluable iPlayer service (only accessible in Britain, unfortunately). One item was Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil, in which the lead-character’s doomed descent into Kafkaesque chaos all derives from a simple one-character data-error caused by a literal bug in an antiquated information system. But also on iPlayer at present is a seriously scary documentary series, Who’s Watching You?, about the ever-expanding use – and misuse – in Britain of CCTV cameras, car number-plate recognition systems and all too many other tools of the surveillance trade. The principle is laudable enough – reduction of crime and the like – but what’s scary is that all too often it turns out that there’s no oversight, no cross-checks, no systems for managing data-quality or for correcting mistakes, no mechanism even to prevent the systems being misused for private feuds – let alone for political ‘dirty tricks’. And who defines ‘crime’, anyway? At what point, for example, does it become a criminal offence to question the decisions of any arm of government? What is there to prevent the country turning into a full-blown police-state? The documentary demonstrated that those questions have never really been addressed at any stage of the systems’ extension and expansion of use; yet every time we fail to consider such quality-issues, and let our vigilance slip, we automatically fall ever further along the slippery slope to the ‘surveillance state’. No-one’s fault as such, other than by fault of omission or fault of imagination; but it’s all too common for civil carelessness to lead to such ‘unintended consequences’…

Hence, back to data, information, quality, wisdom. If the raw data aren’t up to scratch, we can’t do much with the resultant information unless we know how to cope with the lack of quality. Sometimes we have no choice but to rely on wisdom and experience to fill in the gaps. And if the wisdom ain’t up to scratch, or absent altogether, we’s in trouble, folks… :-)

“Let them eat cake”, said Marie Antoinette. Apparently she herself regarded cake as a definite second-best to bread, but couldn’t comprehend the idea of a world without either; and the Paris mob weren’t too worried about such niceties, preferring simply to see her dead. Might not be our own necks on the line when we’re careless about quality, but consequences may not be too much fun, either. Worth while to be vigilant about it, anyway.

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Posted in Business, Complexity / Structure, Enterprise architecture, Knowledge
2 comments on “Let them eat the cake of knowledge
  1. Peter T says:

    Knowledge is the factor that allows you to take effective action – allows you to make the right decision and do the right thing. Knowledge-management is a means to ensure that people have the knowledge they need to make the correct decision.
    To either take effective action OR take no action requires Wisdom that few have. I’m clear that I don’t have much wisdom…

  2. Tom G says:

    “I’m clear I don’t have much wisdom…” – you an’ me both, guv’nor… :-( – as the years flick past, I seem to be shedding what I’d thought was wisdom even faster than I’m shedding what little is left of my hair… :-( dunno how much (if anything? of anything?) will be left at the end of it! :-)

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