If there is only one thing you take from this article let it be this: “the natural state of knowledge is decay.” After fifteen years of working information systems management and specializing in knowledge management I can think of no greater truth on the subject. No matter what your opinion is on my work or my advice, I hope that the one truth I can give you is that knowledge is forever in decay.
Knowledge management is the practice of cultivating, sustainable, reliable, accurate information for the purpose of decision making, prosperity and further cultivation.
Without proper cultivation of knowledge, knowledge is lost either by time, bias, or poor organization. The purpose of a knowledge manager is to cultivate knowledge within a confine safe nurtured ecology that prevents decay and encourages growth.
To paint a clear picture of how important knowledge management is to your business, allow me to write briefly about history. Man has been on this earth for about 20,000 years, give or take a few years based on lots of different scientific evidence…
Wait! Why don’t we know how long man has been on the Earth?
Because no one wrote it down. The knowledge of what man was doing for more than 3/4 of his existence is literally lost. There was no form of writing, no form of organization with meaning, there is some expression a pictures on walls, but that is nearly worthless without some key to indicate how to interpret the data.
Because of a lack of communication protocols and methods, our understanding of early man begins with great civilizations that not only developed means of recording data but the means of organizing and filtering that data into information that could be expressed and interrupted by others through systems of communication, such as hieroglyphs and alphabets.
One of the first great civilizations to take knowledge management seriously was Egypt. It is one of the most recognizable civilizations on earth spanning 3000 years; all of which were painstakingly recorded by scribes, an honorable profession during that time. We know from their records that they invented papyrus to record knowledge, invented an alphabet to record knowledge and created books to record knowledge, they even had a myth of a god who came to them taught them how to write for the purpose of documenting knowledge, Thoth.
The Egyptians were some of the first knowledge managers. Not only did they painstakingly record almost everything, they built entire languages, protocols, and display methods beyond their alphabet as standards for organizing their knowledge for proper deployment in the correct order, for the correct occasion, to the correct people with the correct biases in check for the audience and their comprehension.
You are probably wondering why I am talking about Egypt, thinking that I am reaching for the connection, or maybe not. Maybe you realize I am mentioning them because due to their diligence in knowledge management we know more about their history and culture than probably 80% of all other human cultures. Honestly, think about this for a moment: you probably know more about Egypt’s history and government than your own state’s history or government. Honestly, what do you know about the last CEO at your company, what were the achievements, what systems and process were put into place and where do you find how to do these processes?
Recently while sitting around in the open social area at my office I heard two people from another department debating the sudden technological advancement of mankind over the past fifty years. They were in agreement that there “had to be outside influences on man,” you know, aliens. They agreed on this alien influence idea, but could not agree on the history as to how aliens influenced humanities advancement. They used ancient Egypt’s advancement as their example of alien influence. You might be familiar with the notion that no cultures of man at that time could have built the pyramids. I couldn’t help myself, I had to interrupt, being that I actually find western alien mythos fascinating but I find the idea that aliens from Area 51 are the reason our culture has had recent advancements, “just like Egypt,” a fallacy.
“You’re wrong and I think it’s kinda insulting to humanity and to those who invented the technologies that you won’t credit them for their work” I told them.
Honestly, they got kind of annoyed, if not insulted, by my brash, tactless, remark and asked me to explain why I was so passionate about my statement.
“We have had sudden advancements in technology due to better communication and archiving of our knowledge. The thing that caused our sudden jump in technology for the last few years wasn’t aliens it was the telephone, followed by better travel technology, followed by the necessity of war technology advancement, followed by an enlarging geographic networking, followed by tele-broadcasting, followed by the internet; all of these advancement building on the last advancement is allowing humanity the ability to grow on the knowledge as a community.”
One of them got quiet, and the other started to ask over and over “well how do you explain… ” This is a form of linear extrapolation bias that I often find annoying and I answered each of his questions with, “Google it.”
The reason our society couldn’t explain how the ancient Egyptians built such marvels like the Pyramids isn’t because humans couldn’t build it, it was because without the knowledge documented somewhere in a place where we could find it or interpret it, it was lost. It does not mean aliens did it, it just means we have had to recreate the knowledge to understand it and unlike the Egyptians who had 1400 years dedicated to a culture development for the purpose of building such marvels and the knowledge foundations, such as recorded data and information of each attempt before to build up their technology, we only had the final product and a few hundred years of thinking about it at our leisure with our imaginations running wild.
If you are still in the dark about how Egyptians built the Pyramid and what meaning the Pyramid has, Google it! You might be surprised that there are some pretty definite answers that are recent and widely accepted. However the answers are so ordinary compared to aliens, they haven’t had a lot of fan-fare because they are not nearly as sensational as what shows like Ancient Aliens makes them out to be.
As our ability to record and share data at greater distances and faster speeds with better forms of exposition than just text has grown, we have advanced faster and faster with innovation based on recorded innovation. Technological advancement rests on layers of previous technological advancement.
This rapid growth of technology in great civilizations is due to trade of knowledge through various forms of communication and archiving. Great civilizations are remembered because we have data and information presented to us that they created through the practice of recording history.
Advancements in tech were written down by scribes and then became foundations. Inspired or societies within a culture that were in need researched their ideas and found the existing foundations which allowed them to make further progress than they would have if they had to spontaneous recreate the foundations on their own. Later their progress was added to the documentation and then became part foundations for the next, creating cycle of events that becomes exponential. Had there not been a person who documented, archived, and organized the findings so that the archive of its success, or failure, could be found and used as a basis for advancement the progress would have stalled, just as it did in the “dark ages.”
Phone networks, later fax, and now the internet are better methods of sharing data to allow humanity to work more and more as a community and less as individuals. New computer systems with near unlimited amounts of electromagnetic memory allow us to store more and more of what we know and share. Newer better methods of organizing, referencing, searching, storing and deploying the information we collect and share over these faster networks from these nearly unlimited silos of knowledge are what we should be attributing our advancement to.
A lot of data and information that is written gets lost; sometimes in plain view. There was once mountains of Egyptian text sitting around as unrefined data that we could never understand and it was not until the discovery of the Rosetta stone that we were able to understand the codecs and convert the data into information and re-record the translation tables into our own modern archival systems.
One of the key functions of knowledge management is recording how to understand your knowledge management system and the Rosetta stone is a perfect example of a culture that understood that. Knowledge is nothing but data and utterly useless if the key to unlocking the knowledge is hidden, lost or destroyed.
Take all of what I said into some perspective and look at your company and its needs. What do you really know about your company’s operations? If you work in sales, do you know how to do the day to day tasks of the fulfillment team? If you don’t do you know who does? If you don’t do you know who you can ask to find out? If you have only one fulfillment person and they leave, or die suddenly, how does someone take their place? If you lead the customer facing teams and your agents tell you that customers are complaining about an shipping issue, where do you find the process? If one of your agents finds a process how do you verify it, how do you share it? If your company shut down for a year and re-opened with you the CEO in charge with all new staff how long would it take to get started again, could you get started again?
We can almost completely recreate the day to day life of the average Egyptian during any of that civilizations ages because their culture support an ecology that constantly documented their needs, think about that while you ponder whether or not knowledge management is something you should invest in and take seriously for your company.
There are countless sites and books that will explain to you the process of the “knowledge spiral” or review the case studies of HP and BP. They will all teach you the practice of gathering and archiving, and all of them will help educate you on how to teach your business to learn a culture of valuing the knowledge that it collects. In an age where the products our companies sell are often combinations of other businesses physical products and systems, the modern business’s only real product is the service that it sells with the resale of these products, which should mean that the greatest value a business has is not the hardware that it shares with its competitors as a product but the knowledge of their resold products and the knowledge the obtain from their customer communications about their needs.
Knowledge is the modern business’s product and competitive edge, not their hardware.