Information, knowledge and paper cuts

Stefan Czerniawski sent me the links to two blogs he's written on what he calls 'information management'. His first discussion centres on the point that 'all too often, we organise information as if it were on paper, even when it never has been and there is no expectation that it ever will be.' His second on the 'continuing struggle' people have 'coping with – and contributing to – organisational information'. By 'information' he appears to mean explicit data rather than the more difficult concept of 'knowledge'.

There's an important distinction between 'information' and 'knowledge'. There's something about a focus on information management (ways of filing) that misses the human element that to me is the 'knowledge' bit and includes: emotions, societal values, ethics, serendipitous connections and 'ah ha moments' that are impossible to manage. I always take issue with the phrase 'knowledge management' when what people seemed to be referring to is types of data filing and retrieval.

But information and knowledge are closely connected. In the way of things I was thinking about Stefan's blogs when a piece on Fast World Values dropped into my in-box. In this the author says: 'Take something we rarely think about, searching the web. The speed of Google's search engine is so enthralling that few reflect on the fact that it favours some content over others. For example, in 2007 Google had to change their search engine, so that when you type in 'she invented', the autocomplete no longer comes up with the query: 'Do you mean "he invented"?' Google was not deliberately gender-biased, but its algorithms reflected the values and culture of our world. Most people tend to regard algorithms as neutral brokers of relevant knowledge, but they are inevitably influenced by those who design and write them.

Note the last sentence using the word 'knowledge'. Here the author means 'information' but capturing, structuring and organising 'relevant information' is not value free. What's intriguing here is that Google's information management 'rules' are designed within a knowledge/experience/societal context. The context changed but the rules stayed frozen in a past context. (Remember Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful).

Therefore, there is a bigger question implied in Stefan's first blog discussion in which he presents 5 points for organising information not as if it were on paper but as if it were … well, something different. One of the 5 points is that 'People are search engines'. It's people who work with, accept or discount information presented. They are analysing, interpreting, challenging, connecting and sense making from information using and/or creating knowledge as they work with it. Thus the organisational challenge is both around designing careful information management protocols – that recognise they will not be context free – and around being able to find the people who can work with the information and who can also act knowledgeably with and on it.

The distinction was brought home to me when I was looking at artist Rob Ryan's paper cuts. They are described as 'whimsical, melancholy and heartfelt, the intricate works … depict scenes rooted in real life but also the otherworldly, woven with leaves, flowers, skylines and kissing couples.' You can get a ton of information on how to do papercutting but you'll never be able to capture, file, store, and retrieve the knowledge/experience that makes Rob Ryan's work what it is. (Or is there artificial intelligence coming for that)?

So from these blogs from Stefan, a bunch of questions for me to work on: Is information capture/storage/retrieval distinctively different from knowledge? Does the way information is captured/stored/retrieved/contributed to reflect particular contexts and values? How does the way an organisation treats information shape (or is informed by) its design? Is 'knowledge' unmanageable or it is shaped by the way information is handled?

What questions does the information/knowledge debate raise for you? Let me know.