Knowledge Management Experts
by Daniel D. Stuhlman

The confusion of the terms knowledge, data and information has wasted huge amounts of organizational resources. The terms are related, but each has a different platform within an organization. Until we understand the terms and their implementation, we can not build knowledge management processes. An organization has to master the concept and understand the challenge before it can improve on the way they do business. Librarians by education, training, experience and personality are highly qualified to help businesses or other organizations manage knowledge. Librarians have been understanding societal needs for knowledge since the beginnings of libraries.

Before July 2000 I never heard of the term knowledge management (or KM). CIO (a magazine for chief information officers) had an article, "Ask the Expert" (July 15, 2000) that dealt with questions concerning KM. I started reading about the topic and discovered that I have been a knowledge manager for more than 30 years and never knew it. In my career I have often seen situations when people did not understand how knowledge flows through their systems; did not understand the difference among data, information and knowledge; and did not understand how to save and transmit knowledge. Knowledge management requires the wisdom of experience, the organization ability of a professional cataloger, the insight of a psychologist, the interview ability of a journalist, and the organizational ability of a professional manager.

Knowledge management is a hot term in today's business world. It is not a management fad or technique. It is a process to find out what is known and how to share the knowledge with the people in the organization who need to know. Knowledge management helps the organization get the information required when they need it so that new knowledge is created for better decisions.
 

Definition of Terms

Data are the symbols and basic building blocks of languages and systems. In the computer world the most basic data are the 0's and 1's that comprise the bits and bytes of the computer's inner workings. The bytes become symbols that humans can interpret. Eventually anything can become data,  the building blocks for information. We have databases that store data. The databases may contain names, addresses and information about customers, but the elements are data until value is added by way of collection and interpretation.

Data are discrete facts about events. The amount of money or number of items in a transaction are data elements. A computer record keeping system is essential for gathering and storing the data and enabling reports. These reports are formatted data and because of the value added may be information. Data are important to measure cost, speed, amount, capacity, etc. of the organization. Without interpretation more data are not better than less data. Decisions require data that has been turned into useful information.

Information is the gathered, organized, and interpreted data. If the data are the letters of the alphabet, organizing the letters into words is information. If the data are customers, organizing the list into a usable format is the information needed. In organizations one person's information is based on the data from another with value added. For example people at level one write reports (information) for management. The level one manager gathers the reports (data at this point) and writes another report (information) for level two management. The process continues to the chief executive officer, who uses the information to make his (her) decisions.

Information requires a communication process between a sender and receiver. The information could be an informative beep or audible message telling the person the phone is ringing. The beep gives form to the data and tells one to act. Usually the receiver decides when the message is really information, "noise," or another piece of data. The message may contain an unintended message that reflects on the judgement or intelligence of the sender.

Information moves around organizations by paper, voice and electronic communications. Examples are e-mail, paper mail, notices on bulletin boards, voice mail, and computer transmissions. Information may be machine or human generated. Information storage and transmission are heavily dependent on technology.

Knowledge is the learning process and change in behavior that occurs in a person or organization after internalizing the information. Knowledge is a fluid mix of experience, values, evaluated experiences, and information. Knowledge originates in the minds of experts.  The collective knowledge of an organization is evidenced by its corporate behavior.  Documents preparation,  organizational routines,  business processes and business culture are the essence of corporate behavior. Organizations must be careful not to confuse knowledge and information or knowledge management with information technology.

Technology may be an important component of KM, but the human interaction through formal and informal methods of knowledge transfer is the way to leverage knowledge in one person or place to a strategic advantage in another person or place.

We have a good reason to call the departments MIS (management information systems) or IT (information technology). MIS or IT departments are concerned with how technology can serve the corporate mission. Knowledge management concerns the soft skills and corporate wisdom that influence the way of doing business. Every concept in KM applies equally to the for profit sector, non-profit organizations and voluntary organizations. Every organization from the small two person households to giant corporations needs ways of gathering, storing and sharing knowledge. KM and IT have a symbiotic relationship. IT makes it possible to share knowledge quickly, but humans still need to contribute what they know into the system.

Intuitively most people sense the word, knowledge, implies a broader, deeper, richer and more intellectual view of the world than information or data. Knowledge is created and shared by human beings. Psychologists and educators may spend their careers understanding the brain and mechanisms of knowledge and intelligence, but our definition is a working definition for organizations.

This definition makes it clear that knowledge is not something clear and simple. Knowledge is as fluid and changeable as the people who create and use it. Knowledge exists within people as part of the complexity that makes us human. Knowledge can appear as something concrete like a book or as ethereal as an idea.

The transformation of information happens when people 1) compare and connect new information with previously internalized information; 2) imagine the consequences for decisions and actions; 3) share and compare ideas and information with others.

Sharing Knowledge

Librarians have a sense of history. They build libraries that are the storehouses of the collected knowledge of humanity. Connecting past knowledge with current situations creates new knowledge. First, I want to connect the organization of knowledge to an ancient source, the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). A source in the book of Genesis gives us a clue to the need to catalog and organize knowledge. In the beginning we read of the story of creation. After God created the universe, he separated the light from the darkness and separated the waters and formed dry land. This is the first act of organizing the world. Organization of data is what cataloging is all about. Creation created data; organizing the pieces of the universe created the order that we know as the world.

Learning is a process that is usually defined as change in behavior based on experience. When information is learned and then processed, knowledge is acquired. Knowledge is a set of learned behaviors. Knowledge can be gained from input to any of our senses. Knowledge is based on information. Information is interpreted from data and data are formed from symbols such as letters and numbers. In organizations, one person's data becomes another's information and one person's information becomes another's knowledge. Knowledge is the result of integrating information. Each step of the process adds value to a previous step. The human mind attaches meaning to the unfamiliar. When confronted with symbols such as letters or numbers, the mind tries to interpret them and make words. If the word is familiar, the mind attaches some linguistic meaning to the symbols. Based on the knowledge in the person's head words form and soon the symbols are new information for the person. The difficulty about writing about this process is that while we observe people working, it is difficult to determine the dividing line between information and knowledge. Every input that one of our senses detects is referenced to our experience. That is previous knowledge. For example, the word triangle names a geometric form that has a definition. However, the word triangle creates a mental image that is unique for each person.

In organizations formal training programs are one way to share knowledge and train staff to perform their duties according to the corporate culture. Learning organizations know that shared knowledge affects the bottom line. For example a salesperson may learn something from a customer that helps R&D make a better product. Nevertheless, this is a long connection. It may take many sales people and many customers exchanging information in order for R&D to interpret the information and make it part of the corporate knowledge base. Technology can cut the lead time, but humans decide how to connect the information to other pieces of information before the piece of information becomes knowledge.

Since knowledge is fluid, I will take a concrete model to show how knowledge can be saved, cataloged and transmitted using a library model. These examples can be translated into examples specific for your company.

I define books as the frozen knowledge of the author(s). In an organization, books also include anything that is recorded-- articles, tapes, reports, information bases, etc. Books are based on the information, data, and experience of the author. The author has examined the connections and consequence of his ideas. The act of writing and publishing is a "freezing" of this knowledge because in the real world people can never put their brain on hold. They are always learning and changing their internal knowledge. A book enters a collection based on the rules and practices of the acquisition policy. The book left the author as knowledge and entered the library as information. The title page and other information from the book becomes data for the cataloger. Using the rules required by the library system, the data are entered. Once in the system, the book is represented by symbols. The book is then labeled and placed on the shelf at the "address" that the cataloger assigned. If a reader wants to find that book (s)he looks in the catalog, follows the rules for searching, locates the address of the book and then is able to retrieve the book. Once the book is read, the frozen knowledge of the author can become part of the live knowledge of the reader.

Cataloging is both a science and an art. A process based on rules and practices is a science. A process applying those rules to the needs of a particular library is an art. Two catalogers may both follow the rules and create different catalog records that are both correct. A "cataloger" not following the rules may create a situation that makes if difficult for readers to find books in the future. Cataloging is a process to communicate with library users at a future moment. The reader who understands the rules can find books more easily then those who do not understand how to use the system. Catalogers are source for information; reference librarians are the interpreters and guides to information and the end reader becomes the one who internalizes knowledge. At any moment the librarian can be a gatherer of data, a distributor of information, and a source of knowledge.

Business Examples

This process needs translation for an organization, because storing corporate knowledge is not as easy as cataloging a book. Do you know how to answer these types of questions for your organization?

1. A department needs a computer program that will choose random numbers. Packaged random number generators will not work. Who on your staff knows enough about statistics and shaped random numbers to work on this program?

2. You need to find information about a client company? Who on staff has personal knowledge of the people involved?

3. You see that one business unit produces better results than other units. How do you share that knowledge? How do you communicate with your counter parts in other business units? How do you find the best practices in your organization or field and translate them into improving your business unit?

These are examples of situations that do not have clear informational answers.

Question 1-- At first glance this may seem like a personnel question. However, how many personal forms would ask questions in such detail? If you ask too many detailed questions at the pre-employment stage how many bright, talented people will you lose? The answer to this question is found in the ability to keep the lines of communication open. Learn how to analyze between the lines of a resume. A manager who knows that statistics are an important component of the fields of psychology, sociology, and mathematics may make the connection that a person who majored in one of those fields would have the knowledge to solve this problem. Finding this person requires knowledge of your staff or the ability to look up the information.

Question 2 -- This is fuzzy knowledge. You may not understand what you need to know about the client. This may be a concrete question. Who at ABC Client do I talk to for purpose XYZ? A knowledge base to share client information may help. Use client knowledge to a strategic advantage. Do not make a mistake asking for Joe Client when your staff members have just learned that Joe Client retired.

Question 3-- How do you share best practices? Do you have productive meetings? Does your department share what you have learned among themselves? Is there a process to communicate your department's best practices with other departments? Does the corporate culture support sharing? This is not an easy question to answer because your organization needs the human and technological systems to facilitate sharing.

Here are some examples of processes for sharing. Professionals in your organization may not have many colleagues within the organization. They need to keep in touch with colleagues world wide to keep up their knowledge. Do you allow them time to use the internet and other communications to share information? Do you send them to conventions and conferences?

Are your best practices documented? If you build something for one client do you document the process so that when a second client wants the same thing or something similar are you able to learn from the first experience and share the knowledge? Have you banned thoughts of "If it is not invented here; it can't be good enough?"

The computer mouse and the graphical interface were invented at Xerox's research center. Steve Jobs went on a tour of the facility and was able to get enough ideas to create a new computer software system that eventually led to Mac OS and Windows. Xerox was never able to capitalize on its own discovery. Steve Jobs did not steal an idea, he took a great idea and developed it. I wonder if Xerox had a knowledge management problem or was Steve Jobs a gifted visionary?

Hoarding of information or knowledge for some may seem like job security. Organizations need to show their staff not just tell them that this is counterproductive. Organizations must give incentives to those who share. This means thank you's, recognition,  and implementation as well as financial incentives. Often for small ideas just proper recognition is its own reward.

Watch out how you evaluate failure. A vice president was called into the president's office after the vice president's division had just lost $10 million the past year. The vice president did his best job, but the public just did not buy the product. Quietly the vice president asked, "I suppose you want me to resign?" The president answered back, "Not after we just spent $10 million on your education. I want you to analyze, evaluate and report on what your division did so that we do not repeat the mistakes. We fix the mistakes of others; we do not compound them." The vice president and president went on to discuss the failure and how the company can learn from the situation. The knowledge manager's job is to catalog and store the knowledge so that others may share it.

Can your Help Desk answer non-technical questions? Does it have the ability to connect a searcher with a provider of knowledge within your organization? Is the Help Desk staff trained in fuzzy logic? Fuzzy logic occurs when the seeker of knowledge asks one question, but they really need to know the answer to another question.

Roger Brown in Words and Things (New York, Free Press, 1958) analyzes what goes on in a person's head when they learn how to read. This learning process is what is needed to understand symbols that become words, sentences, information, and eventually knowledge. He describes a "clicking" when the word becomes a neurological concept. For example the word triangle has a definition. When people see the shape,  they immediately know it is a triangle. However there are an infinite variety of objects that can be triangles. The learner distinguishes the triangle from other shapes such as rectangles and circles . A person is able to use his perceptual ability to recognize an object and give it the proper name. When the name of the object is read or heard the person has a mental image. When more complex objects, such as a human face, are examined hearing the person's name is not enough. We need to see a picture of the person to be able to recognize him before we have met. The "click" of comprehension occurs when the image, name and symbol are compared with learned experiences.

Corporate learning is the same "clicking" process. We take symbols (data) attach meaning (information), create comprehension (add value to information), and it becomes part of corporate knowledge.

Hopefully I have raised a few questions to start a process of thinking. Librarians know how to organize knowledge in ways to facilitate Brown's "clicking." They are the professionals that know how to gather, store and distribute knowledge.


Daniel D. Stuhlman is president of Stuhlman Management Consultants, Chicago, IL, a firm dedicated to helping organizations turn data into knowledge. A librarian for more than 30 years, he loves books, information and knowledge. Contact him at: ddstuhlman@earthlink.net .
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© 2002 by Daniel D. Stuhlman
Last revised October 17, 2002