Is knowledge management really information management?: a question of crucial definition

Picture of italian philosopher Luciano Floridi

Image via Wikipedia

No, I am not going to repeat the argument so well put forward many years ago by Tom Wilson (The nonsense of knowledge management, 2002, http://informationr.net/ir/8-1/paper144.html), with which I largely agree.  While Professor Wilson argues his case well, he largely comes to the conclusion that the term ‘knowledge management’ was formulated in order to cover a number of organisational managerial and communication issues, without much of a nod to – or even recognition of – the existing field of Library and Information Science, or Information Studies, or Information Studies, or whatever you want to call it.  This poverty of nomenclature – the continuing disregard that we information professionals seem to have to clarity of expression – is at the heart, I believe, of many of the perennial issues and problems that fracture our field to no real purpose.

Wilson has, from time to time, referred back to ‘knowledge management’, reinforcing his point that, as a practice or field of study, it doesn’t really exist as a separate entity, as it is identical in process and conception to information management.  What would help his argument enormously, I believe, is if he were able to use definitions for these terms (‘information’ and ‘knowledge’) that had achieved consensus in the field.  Then, we would not have to explain to all of those involved in this field, many of whom are drawn from management, information systems, business studies, technology and so forth – exactly what it is that needs to be done in order to manage ‘knowledge’.  We could perhaps even encourage these folk to take a look at the masses of research already completed in our field concerning precisely the issues with which knowledge managers now engage: assisting in the communication of ideas from one human to another.  As I have written elsewhere (e.g. 2005 and 2007), I understand information professionals to be ‘information interventionists’: we intervene in the knowledge creation cycle.

The central issue, though, is that we importantly have not yet come to a widely accepted definition of ‘information’ or ‘knowledge’.  By this I mean, rather more precisely, that we do not have an operational definition that works for our field and for the work we do.  James Gleick, author of Chaos, inter alia, has now published a book on information: ‘Information: a history, a theory, a flood‘ (Fourth Estate, 2011) and one must admire him for his courage and ability to do so.  Having said that, he does not move us forward to understand better what ‘information’ is.  Neither does philosopher Luciano Floridi, who has written extensively on this topic and on the philosophy of information.  However much the data-information-knowledge model (often represented in pyramid form) is criticised or maligned, this still remains the starting point, or mental model, for both authors.  In Gleick’s case, the concept is further confused with information objects or entities, technology, networks and the new physics.  I find the understanding of information in the new physics fascinating: Information: the new language of science is probably my favourite book on this subject.  But this does not conceptualise the notion of  ‘information’ in a way that is meaningful for those of us who wish to assist people to create their own knowledge by finding out what others have thought, created, felt, experienced and so on.

This is why I wrote a PhD thesis on the topic of defining information. What I found in my research, amongst many other interesting things, is the political nature of the definition and interpretation of information, and I believe it would be appropriate for us to pay more attention to such dimensions of the core of our discipline/profession.

[I can let you have a digital copy of this work: email me or make a note here].

Multidisciplinarity and collaboration

Digital Preservation

Image by zipckr via Flickr

One of the impediments to collaboration between content information professionals (librarians, records managers, archivists) and technology information professionals (computer scientists, geeks, information systems people) may be because of the feminised nature of, in particular, librarianship, and the masculinised nature of computer scientists and technology in general. Of course, these are rather large claims, but still seem to exist. Sandy Payette, chief executive officer of Duraspace was featured as the ‘Wednesday Geek Woman on Februrary 9, 2011 and recognized for her groundbreaking work on the original Fedora repository architecture as part of a research project that included collaborators at Cornell University and University of Virginia. Read the post herehttp://geekfeminism.org/2011/02/09/wednesday-geek-woman-sandy-payette/. The post calls attention to the fact that the field of digital preservation echoes the gender disparity found in other male dominated high tech fields:

Software development around digital librarianship and digital preservation is overwhelmingly male-dominated, despite the larger numbers of women among librarians and archivists in general. Many of the women in digital preservation are Women near Tech, doing wonderful, important work, but not the fundamentals of software architecture and development. So Sandy’s contributions to the field become even more apparent given the strange gender disparities of digital preservation.”

Michele Kimpton, currently chief business officer of DuraSpace and also a notable “Geek Woman”, will assume the role of chief executive officer on March 1, 2011. Kimpton was recently featured by the Library of Congress as a “Digital Preservation Pioneer” for her work in developing entrepreneurial, community-driven and culturally sensitive approaches to creating tools and strategies in support of digital archiving (http://www.digitalpreservation.gov/partners/pioneers/detail_kimpton.html)

http://expertvoices.nsdl.org/duraspace/2011/02/14/geek-woman-sandy-payette-ceo-of-duraspace/ See also http://geekfeminism.org/ for more on this topic. Perhaps gender isn’t as much of a problem as some think it is – although there is no doubt that there are still a number of gender issues in many countries: Italy, for example. I have suggested that differences in understanding the concepts of data, information and knowledge can make communication between disciplines and cultures difficult: gender may be an issue too.  What other possible obstacles do you think exist that inhibit or prevent collaboration between these disciplines/professions? All the bestSue

A nice connection

Nicolaus Copernicus

Image via Wikipedia

Enrico Francese, who commented below on the DIK definitions, and requested information on the origin of this hierarchy, posted this comment on his own blog, Mind Matters, http://fraenrico.carcosa.it/?p=793 , where he discusses libraries, technology and man in the middle.  He notes: Rispondemi sul blog, Sue Myburgh si dimostra “stupita” che il fondamento della disciplina si trovi in una poesia. Io invece no. Perché da sempre ho creduto nel valore ermeneutico della poesia, e dell’arte – che per me sono sempre stati strumenti di conoscenza molto più che non la stessa ricerca scientifica. [In her Answer on the blog, Sue Myburgh proves “astonished” that the foundation of the discipline is in a poem. I do not. Because I have always believed in the value of interpretation of poetry, and art – which for me have always been instruments of knowledge much more than the scientific research itself.] I would like to explain a little bit why I agree wholeheartedly with Enrico: the basis for my ‘astonishment’ is that ‘library science‘ or ‘information science‘ (particularly the latter) determined  that it would be more prestigious for the discipline/profession to be regarded as a natural science, along with chemistry, physics, mathematics, geology and so forth.   The literature shows a long-standing interest in being identified as a science, originating perhaps with Butler in 1933, when he introduced the term ‘library science’ to indicate the scientific and quantitative study of books and users, thus differentiating the field from the older conception of the ‘scholar-librarian’ and Dewey’s pragmatic ‘library economy’ approach.  The leaning towards science continued with Cleverdon’s work on information retrieval systems.  He believed that a researcher was committed to the discovery of truth by means of reliable research instruments and rational discussion, and this desire was expressed in the need to undertake quantitative research, which was, in particularly, quite clearly enunciated  the apocryphal comment by Lord Kelvin in the introduction to Cleverdon’s report on the results of his work, which gave us the strange measurements now used in information retrieval systems ofprecision, recall and relevance – Cleverdon’s attempts at quantification. When you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it, but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind (Kelvin, cited by Cleverdon and Keen, 1966, p. 31). So, Enrico, what I would like to say is that I agree with you: I too understand that poetry and art, in all its forms, are more potent (and possibly ‘truer’ and more enduring) instruments or expressions of knowledge.  Scientific ‘facts’ are proved ‘wrong’ with regularity – look at Copernicus and Galileo.  But, what ‘astonished’ me is that, in its quest to be regarded as scientific, the field has boldly (or ignorantly) adopted as its basic premise a verse from a poem: the ‘pure’ science is based on a paradox.  Further, I would like to add, Eliot did not for one second suggest that data are the building blocks of information and can be ‘processed’, nor did he suggest that information becomes – or indeed is in any way related to – knowledge.  He was mourning the fact that in our busyness of life, we neglected the important parts (surely something we can identify with today).  It is the ‘pseudo-scientists’ (if I can suggest such a term here) that have created the hierarchy, and added ‘data’ at the bottom and ‘wisdom’ at the top, because it appears to make some kind of syntactic sense. Unfortunately, it doesn’t: data are created, organised, stored, understood, processed, recorded and so forth in completely different ways from those in which information or knowledge are created, organised, stored, understood, processed etc. What do the rest of you think??? Happy Valentine’s DaySue

So, to kick off with definitions

I was taught, back in the day, that when indulging in academic discussion, it was vital to ‘first define your terms’.  So, I’ll bravely (or foolishly) start the discussion on definitions – or explanations – in order to achieve, in the end, mutually understood concepts.  I suggest that the aim here is not so much to attempt to develop a single phrasing or understanding of a term, as much as to understand how each term (‘word’ or ‘phrase’) is used within particular disciplinary territories, or perhaps even for different purposes.  In other words, how are these ‘terms’ conceptualised?

And I’m going to, perhaps even more bravely or foolishly, start with the terms that are so commonly used in our disciplines/professions.  (You’ll note that I put these words together, to suggest their strongly interrelated nature, much like Foucault used ‘power/knowledge’ for the same purpose).  These words are, I believe, data, information, knowledge, documents and records.  After a great deal of exposure to the literature in librarianship, information science, recordkeeping and archival science, I remained frustrated by the overwhelming number of definitions of these terms, and even more by the total lack of agreement and consistency in these definitions.  This gave me the impetus to study this topic in some detail for several years, and I arrived at the following conclusions.

The predominant image or metaphor currently expressed is that of a hierarchy, with ‘data’ at the bottom of a pyramid-shaped structure, supporting ‘information’ at the next level, and topped by ‘knowledge’.  The explanation is given that ‘data’ are the primary construction element: when these are ‘processed’, they become ‘information’ which, likewise, when processed, becomes knowledge.  Exactly what happens during the ‘processing’ phase is not explained.  It is presumed that this can be by a computer, and so ‘data’ can be seen as synonymous with ‘bits’, which are processed and understood (by the computer) as ‘bytes’, these bytes can, in certain sequences, be translated into various symbols (such as letters of various alphabets, punctuation marks, etc.) and so, in various combinations, form ‘words’.  These ‘words’ are not, of course, understood conceptually be the computer as referring to any other entity or phenomenon: they are simply sequences or patterns.  Algorithmically (and computer scientists, I stand to be corrected here), such patterns can be programmed as ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ – hence the development of spellcheckers, for example.

The data-information-knowledge model therefore may be useful to computer scientists, if ‘data’ as a term is seen to represented the concept ‘bits’ – the presence or absence of an electrical or electro-magnetic charge.  However, it also suggests that computers are capable of producing ‘knowledge’, which is a conclusion with which I disagree.  Quite strongly.  If this model is used in a human context, it suggests that we accumulate ‘data’ somehow from our environment, and these include things like temperature (rather than the experience of heat or cold), and then process them into ‘information’ – presumably using only our cognitive abilities, which are sometimes regarded as little more than the add/subtract/compare processes of the computer. ‘Data’ are understood largely, in addition, to being ‘facts’ – many dictionaries provide this as an explanation of the term.  The problem with ‘fact’ is twofold: firstly, it suggests that it is ‘true’ – and of course the notion of ‘truth’ and what it is remains largely unresolved – at least in philosophical circles; furthermore, ‘facts’ are socially constructed.  We make ‘facts’ through the ways in which we frame time, space, measurement, power, and so forth.  ‘Information’ is understood to be some kind of result of analysis of the data having been ‘processed’.  But does this mean learned, understood, made meaning of? And information in turn is ‘processed’ (once again, it is not clear what activities are included) in order to become knowledge.  Distinctions are not drawn between the kinds of knowledges that we have: knowledge of things, knowledge about things, knowledge how to do things, etc.  I strongly resist the concepts of  ‘tacit’ and ‘explicit’ knowledge, however, which will become clearer later.

I am of the view that ‘knowledge’ is the place to begin an analysis of the other two concepts.  ‘Knowledge’ is what we, as human beings, have: it is what we ‘know’ – whether we know we know it or not.  Sometimes we have forgotten ‘stuff’, or do not realise that we know ‘stuff’. We acquire knowledge in a number of ways: firstly, we are born with the ability to acquire knowledge and language, after birth we experience the world through our five senses. Aristotle was particularly keen on this idea; Plato felt that our world was a mirage of the true or essential world. We also require knowledge vicariously, through other people, or rather, other people telling us of their direct experiences. If they record these experiences in some way, for example in writing, we may still learn from and experience their experiences across time and space.

So, I understand information to be that part of the persons knowledge that he or she chooses to share our with others, and which he or she will represent using a language of their choice, which may be spoken language, or dance or art or mathematics, for example. Our understanding of the message will depend upon our ability to decode their language: we must be able to interpret the symbolic representation of their ideas. Knowledge is, as previously stated the sum total of the accumulation of ideas and experiences that we individually possess. Data culturally or socially constructed symbols; they may be numbers or figures, or statements: in either case, there are embedded in a particular contextual understanding and represent nearly what is believed to be true at a particular moment and in particular space (which is why I am able to refer to the ideas of Aristotle and Plato).

Finally, I will say that to extend this understanding of data, information and knowledge, (DIK) I further believe that  information is represented in language, and rerepresented in writing–symbols that represent spoken language– which can  be recorded on a material which may or may not be more less durable, and that material constitutes a “document”.  Thus, a document can be understood to be a container of information. Some documents provide evidence of a business transaction, and these documents known as “records”.

I look forward to your analysis, critique, and commentary on these ideas.

All the best, Sue