Comment: Harvesting the knowledge

12 Oct 2005

One of the problems we all seem to face, especially in work, is the use of occupational language — or jargon. While it has always been a barrier to some degree, the prevalence of computers in practically all areas of work and living means IT jargon can exclude a lot of people, if only because they assume the latest techie term is just another fad they’ll grow out of.

A comparatively recent addition to this catalogue of the obscure is knowledge management — or KM to those in the business. Because of its origin, most people regard it as a technology (or ICT) issue. The trouble with this one is that, while it certainly has a strong ICT dimension (managing information and turning into something useful inevitably means using technology somewhere along the line), it is of course far more than a technology issue.

This unhelpful situation (where KM is considered a matter for the computer people) was partly brought about by the technology industry itself that continues to have an inability to talk the same language as people in other businesses or activities. When people resort to this techie jargon, or try to describe all of the problems in the world in terms of IT architectures, they are actually masking their own limitations when it comes to seeing bigger pictures or scenarios. Not that I’m saying IT people are too narrowly focused — indeed some really broad thinkers have strong IT backgrounds. But ‘IT speak’ creates barriers for people who might not consider themselves sufficiently skilled to talk the same language and are therefore frightened off. In relation to KM, while it has origins in the IT or ‘e’ world — evidenced by those who talk about KM solutions — it is a much more important issue than one to be left to the IT types to control.

For government, KM means managing the way information can add value to the different functions in and across government and to the wider democratic process. In policy formulation, an activity that needs information and data on which to make judgements and to draw up scenarios, you cannot have too much knowledge, provided that it’s useful and easy to manage. Evidence-assisted policy making is very much an aspect or form of KM and therefore points to the need for public policy makers to give it a stronger emphasis — to take control of the concept, rather than to leave it as a ‘nice to have’ aspect of e-government.

Admittedly, the worst thing in the world you can have is information overload, because of the real danger of swamping the knowledge-sifting and synthesis processes used in policy making. So there is a big challenge in making it possible to collect and collate information from sources that may be quite disparate. This means you have to have the frameworks or standards to ensure apples can be compared with apples — through common classification or codification mechanisms or by using tools that can make the right connections in the right contexts. What I’m getting at here is the need to be able to make the meaningful links in terms of relevance of information — to focus on describing that need or problem, rather than getting hung up on a possible solution, especially before you really understand the problem.

There is also another dimension to KM that crops up and that is in how to harvest the considerable volume of tacit knowledge that exists in every organisation. A few years ago there was a strong emphasis on getting this captured in some way and I found it difficult to imagine how you could easily prise that kind of valuable information from individuals. More recently, sanity has re-emerged and the emphasis has shifted to making it feasible to find the people with the knowledge (the experience and the judgements based on that experience) rather than collecting the knowledge itself.

A new dimension to this is the involvement of a wider group of people who can input knowledge. Two immediate problems that spring to mind are: how to separate opinion from fact; and how to ensure there is sufficient balance. There are, of course, other problems in the area of establishing the links and providing the mechanisms for the collection of knowledge and the dispersal of information. This is the area where technology plays the key part. So you can see that KM needs to be adequately defined and understood before you go too far down the road of throwing technology at it.

But perhaps the biggest implication for the public service lies in building the capacity for using knowledge and information in a new context of greater availability. It means many people will have to start seeing themselves in a new light. They will also have to learn new skills — and perhaps even new methodologies — in the policy-making processes. As with many of the paradigm changes the public service has faced and will continue to face as the nature of society changes in response to a fast-changing world, change facilitation and capacity building are major requirements. And these don’t have a lot to do with technology.

By Colm Butler, director of information society policy, Department of the Taoiseach