Pandora

Published: October 31st, 2002

From “data” to “knowledge” – my, how the buzz words fly. Yet there are important concepts, and even more important implications,

KM and the Twin Towers

Let’s be brave enough to ask a truly loaded question about knowledge management (KM). Undoubtedly the most traumatic and influential episodes we have experienced in the Western world early in the 21st century have been the terrorist strikes on the World Trade Centre in New York and on the Pentagon. The assaults have influenced virtually every discipline of public sector management at every level and will do so for some time.

So, would effective knowledge management have prevented Sept.11? With 20/20 hindsight, the immediate answer must be “yes – maybe.”

Since the attacks in New York and Washington, we have learned that the FBI, the CIA, immigration, transportation administration, military and other intelligence services in the United States had the information – the knowledge – that could have identified the perpetrators and their intentions in advance of their acts. Indeed, for our purposes, the information had been “mined” and warehoused. But it was truly warehoused – as in stored in the backroom.

Information existed, and was available to someone in authority, on everything from the backgrounds of the terrorists and their associations, to the flight training that would enable them to take over the cockpits of targeted jets, to – if we include the experience of actor James Woods and others -the terrorists’ direct reconnaissance of their targets.

Although there was a lot of information, it simply wasn’t available in one place or to any one analyst, linked in order to be meaningful, or shared in order to be effective. Even if the information had been shared and readily available to the right people at the right time – and it is a huge “if” – the right knowledge would have been required and the right intelligence used to know what to look for, link the very different data, decide that it was in fact important and develop a course of action.

KM could have helped, then. Maybe. But . . . maybe not.

KM: The doctor is always in

Health care practitioners are already working towards a health care environment based on effective knowledge management (KM). Such an approach could help fulfill the long-developing dream of remote and distance medicine for isolated locations. It would also provide concrete solutions to the cost and quality of virtually all services.

In a KM health care setting, patients and their expert advisors would have immediate access to full personal information, case studies of other patients, properties and success of treatment strategies, alternate approaches and the benefit of the world’s finest expertise. Administrators would be able to ensure access to equipment, supplies and facilities, make better procurement deals and match resources with needs.

Beyond that, officials could also have access to information on the costs involved with the health of each patient. We may even be able to determine how much one patient has paid into the system and how much that patient has cost the system – the ultimate in cost/benefit.

Put another way, the information could be there to determine if it was cost effective to continue to even treat a patient and which kinds of citizens cost more than they contribute. It would be a brave new world of health administration, perhaps, but also a clear illustration of the principle that knowledge is only what you do with it.

behind the terminology related to information and intelligence. Indeed, perhaps we should give some thought to changing the title Chief Information Officer to Coordinating Intelligence Officer.

The phrases “knowledge warehousing” and “knowledge management” have crept into organizational terminology like burglars into the foyer at night. In the bad old days – remember data capture, data warehousing and (metaphor of metaphors) data mining – we talked about information management. God forbid we now start talking about knowledge mining – a term that in some deeper past someone may have referred to as “thinking.” But, enough self-righteous semantic digression. For now, in examining these issues, let’s just agree that knowledge warehousing means accumulating information and experience in an accessible form. Knowledge management (KM), means using and making sense of that information and experience.

Technology managers and executives alike have concluded that there are valuable concepts behind the knowledge management buzz, especially in an e-government and ESD environment. The realization that it is important to move from the priority of making information available electronically to making it useful electronically is seminal in and of itself. However, let’s leave the technology and systems to those more qualified to talk about it (and more interested in it). Instead, let’s examine the upsides and downsides, particularly as they relate to e-government and ESD.

The overwhelming quantity and quality of research reports and intellectual angling over KM shows that it is a particularly valuable discussion in the public sector. Many of the issues that surround e-government in general also relate to knowledge management. Steve Tudor of IBM Business Consulting Services – the former Pricewaterhouse Coopers – sees it as all-encompassing. “Every aspect of the business of government requires the application of knowledge management. Issues as diverse as replacement of an aging workforce, and the delivery of services to citizens are impacted by the capability of government organizations to efficiently and effectively use information and experience.”

PEOPLE WHO ARE PEOPLE

Shifting staffing demographics brought on by the boomer bust have put a premium on corporate memory. The issue is not only about information but about access and interpretation. CIOs have found that it is one thing to have information available – something that remains a major challenge – and another to be able to find it and know how to use it. It may even become important to address the issue of what is human knowledge as opposed to machine knowledge or data. We now have information transferred to knowledge banks – meteorological data, for example – that has never seen the light of the human mind. If there were a basic, fundamental contradiction between information provided by machine and information provided by humans, which would we trust as our basis of knowledge?

KM and the Twin Towers

Let’s be brave enough to ask a truly loaded question about knowledge management (KM). Undoubtedly the most traumatic and influential episodes we have experienced in the Western world early in the 21st century have been the terrorist strikes on the World Trade Centre in New York and on the Pentagon. The assaults have influenced virtually every discipline of public sector management at every level and will do so for some time.

So, would effective knowledge management have prevented Sept.11? With 20/20 hindsight, the immediate answer must be “yes – maybe.”

Since the attacks in New York and Washington, we have learned that the FBI, the CIA, immigration, transportation administration, military and other intelligence services in the United States had the information – the knowledge – that could have identified the perpetrators and their intentions in advance of their acts. Indeed, for our purposes, the information had been “mined” and warehoused. But it was truly warehoused – as in stored in the backroom.

Information existed, and was available to someone in authority, on everything from the backgrounds of the terrorists and their associations, to the flight training that would enable them to take over the cockpits of targeted jets, to – if we include the experience of actor James Woods and others -the terrorists’ direct reconnaissance of their targets.

Although there was a lot of information, it simply wasn’t available in one place or to any one analyst, linked in order to be meaningful, or shared in order to be effective. Even if the information had been shared and readily available to the right people at the right time – and it is a huge “if” – the right knowledge would have been required and the right intelligence used to know what to look for, link the very different data, decide that it was in fact important and develop a course of action.

KM could have helped, then. Maybe. But . . . maybe not.

KM: The doctor is always in

Health care practitioners are already working towards a health care environment based on effective knowledge management (KM). Such an approach could help fulfill the long-developing dream of remote and distance medicine for isolated locations. It would also provide concrete solutions to the cost and quality of virtually all services.

In a KM health care setting, patients and their expert advisors would have immediate access to full personal information, case studies of other patients, properties and success of treatment strategies, alternate approaches and the benefit of the world’s finest expertise. Administrators would be able to ensure access to equipment, supplies and facilities, make better procurement deals and match resources with needs.

Beyond that, officials could also have access to information on the costs involved with the health of each patient. We may even be able to determine how much one patient has paid into the system and how much that patient has cost the system – the ultimate in cost/benefit.

Put another way, the information could be there to determine if it was cost effective to continue to even treat a patient and which kinds of citizens cost more than they contribute. It would be a brave new world of health administration, perhaps, but also a clear illustration of the principle that knowledge is only what you do with it.

In democratic societies in particular, legislators and public and private sector executives and administrators are already fully engaged and somewhat perplexed by the question of who should have access to what, when and how.

The analog version of a knowledge warehouse may well be a library and they’re public – right? Well – only recently. For most of the time we’ve had libraries, access was limited to those who could read; in earlier, darker days, that was itself limited to the ruling classes and their servants. Indeed, during Europe’s “dark ages,” most libraries were located in monasteries and even then were open only to a few people.

Knowledge management approaches in today’s public sector cannot avoid the major governance questions that concern experts and advocates alike. Should access to the knowledge gathered on behalf of (and from) the public be available to all or restricted to only a few, perhaps those with a need to know? Who manages and who has access to the knowledge warehouse? Who runs (read “owns”) it? Who decides what goes in? What limitations must be put on the use of that knowledge? Should just anyone be able to build a nuclear weapon or invent a “worm?” The issues of access, privacy and accountability remain paramount.

MINE, MINE, MINE!

Just as important is sharing knowledge. Set aside for now the technology issues that surround the rapidly changing world of technological systems, or the knowledge required to simply use them effectively. The technology is part of the knowledge, after all, not just a way to organize it. IT specialists in government regularly face the challenge of too many electronic legacy systems; it is a daunting task to convert to a common technical knowledge base. But the electronic side is only the tip of the knowledge iceberg. How much information is still only available on analog technologies such as microfilm, microfiche, DAT tape, magnetic (MAG) tape or even print?

Talented types will no doubt come along to solve many of these challenges. What they will not necessarily solve are the issues behind the ability to share. Information is power. Efficient delivery of services, especially ESD, requires that knowledge not only be effectively managed but shared in order to even be useful, let alone to provide the checks and balances necessary for accountability. Elected representatives and public sector specialists need to come to terms with who really owns the knowledge and the intellectual property rights that come with it. There are important implications for access to information, privacy and security. What can be shared, with whom and by whom? And what about the even trickier question of cross-jurisdictional relationships and willingness to share?

Knowledge management may well be a key to one-stop-shopping, to comprehensive electronic service delivery to citizens, but where do the permissions lie? The chasms in information sharing around both knowledge and mandate must be bridged in the context of a global information age. Government is traditionally built on mandate, responsibility and accountability: elections, constitutions, financial administrations, trade agreements and treaties, memoranda of understanding and all kinds of other authorities. Many of these dictate who does what, but not necessarily who can manage what knowledge – especially now that knowledge has become a much larger and less personal commodity. These are political decisions in the true sense of the word “political,” but they are also partisan decisions based on all the competing realities in a democracy: informed versus ignorant, race, creed, culture, ideology, have versus have-not, able versus unable. Tudor stresses the need for a comprehensive, informed approach. “If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, imagine how dangerous a little knowledge management is. …. Ineffective knowledge management could be worse than none.”

Still, the upsides can be extraordinary. There are many examples of the effective use of knowledge management technology, systems and process in both public and private sectors; they include health care, communications management, access control and security, to mention only a few.

ONE MAN’S TREASURE…

A more esoteric, but equally essential, concept is intelligence. Intelligence is (presumably and partly) the result of knowledge and the end product of knowledge. But different people will use the same information to come to radically different conclusions based on their own capabilities, interests, ideologies and environments.

Then there’s the relationship between knowledge and belief, spirit and soul; let’s just say that it’s an ultimate determinant of how we use both knowledge and intelligence.

There are many considerations in sound knowledge management, but there is no doubt that it is a cornerstone of effective implementation of e-government and ESD. So, as we peak into Pandora’s legacy, we must ask ourselves: “Just because we can, does it mean we should?” Yes, but, to paraphrase Star Trek, let’s go carefully where no one has gone before!


David Newman (dnewman@sympatico.ca) is President of Newman Communications, a consulting company specializing in coalition and alliance building, communications and reputation management. Mr. Newman has extensive experience with government, the corporate world, the third sector, and politics.



Related Download
Create a Unique Selling Proposition for Your Global Market Sponsor: EDC
Create a Unique Selling Proposition for Your Global Market

Register Now