We Have all Kinds of Knowledge

Posted on October 1st, 2009 at 6:28 pm by lmoulton

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In a few weeks the Boston KM Forum will conduct a symposium at Bentley University on Personal Knowledge Management. The speakers’ topics are diverse, reflecting many of the different ways that we each approach our personal knowledge related bundles: those in our brains, in piles on our desks, and the stuff we stockpile on our computers.

In the context of search, one of my areas of expertise, I have written about how anticipating the “intent” of the searcher has to influence the usefulness or usability of design in a retrieval system. In personal knowledge management, if it is something we care to take the time to reflect on, we need to consider the different kinds of knowledge we have and how we intend to use and value it before deciding how to manage any of it.

Facts, Evidence, Expertise, and Ideas form a continuum of knowledge and interact in different ways for each of us. Evaluating what our personal best practices should be for managing what we know, or what others know that we want to keep accessible for future use, is a work in progress for most of us. It is a mystery of our behavior how we evolve in terms of the patterns, mechanisms, and order of knowledge that we embrace at various stages in life. I think this has to do with our own growing body of knowledge and experiences that cause us to shift personal knowledge management as we become enlightened or aware of better or more useful techniques. I have no great insights to share in this post, just some observations and suggestions to think about.

Managing facts such as addresses, phone numbers, emails, medicines we take, properties of materials we work with, directions for performing assembly operations or building a Web site is pretty easy. These are only a few of the factual content items that surround us in our working and personal lives. They tend to fall into natural buckets and once we decide on how to manage each bucket our patterns are easily maintained.

With knowledge that I would categorize as evidence we begin to be more challenged. We observe things like the lily buds usually appearing in July and shortly after the deer making a meal of them. It is easy to make a note of missing data or parts on the instruction sheet, or to update our gardening diary with the observation about deer damage but remembering that we need to look at this information in time to make it useful is another kind of knowledge, expertise.

Expertise is knowledge we accumulate with experience and learning of facts and evidence, as well as participation in activities: physical, mental and social. Expertise is difficult to quantify and very hard to characterize; that’s one reason that hiring and placing workers is often so tricky. Applying “tags” or labels to expertise is more art than science; providing context is something few do very well in a way that is meaningful for a general audience. To the extent that we can boil expertise into useful nuggets or comprehensive volumes of content that help others, we make inroads into knowledge sharing and facilitating retrieval. Categorizing expertise for our own benefit is a lot easier.

The toughest type of knowledge to manage is ideas. These come from assembling all that accumulated factual, evidentiary, and expert knowledge, often subconsciously. Ideas are the least tangible, and codifiable. However, they are the driver of so much of what makes us advanced beings: creativity, innovation, invention, and adaptation. Ideas are the exciting product of all that other knowledge.

In our personal knowledge management of facts, evidence and expertise we need to leave a mental space for processing and digesting; this is what gestates new ideas, and new knowledge. Ideas are intensely personal, can’t be taken away or co-opted by others until we given them away. Ideas need to be encouraged and self-vested to make us more knowledgeable, valuable and satisfied as human beings.

To carry this idea about ideas one step further, I think it is worth vesting our youth with some ideas about this knowledge continuum and how they need to care for what they learn and know in their personal and professional lives. A respect for the knowledge of others is something we all need to consider and foster. Giving young people insights into the knowledge journey they will travel is surely worth some effort for those of us who have traveled the path before.