Knowledge Handling – the Neglected Opportunity

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by: Sigurd Rinde

I believe we are making a huge and unconscious mistake in how we handle knowledge; how we capture, organise and distribute facts and information for assimilation. It might have a wide-ranging negative impact on all what we do, and I think we should do something about it.

Knowledge is the source of our wealth, well-being, and hope for the future.

Knowledge is facts, information and skills acquired by experience or education.

Thus the most important aspect of knowledge is how and in what form it is captured and distributed for the most efficient assimilation.

As we cannot have all knowledge in our personal RAM at all times we need systems and ways to have the right information and facts delivered at the right time, and in a form that we immediately understand – preferably without any previous and specific training.

That is what makes organisations work better, that increases global wealth and well-being, in short, that yields more efficient resource use.

And in practice it’s about the single most important aspect for education, knowledge management, politics, global warming, enterprise software and almost anything else. Do not underestimate the importance of how knowledge is handled.

Let me keep it simple and divide the handling methods into two distinct ways:

1. Categories

When asked "what word is the odd one out among these three – cow, chicken, grass" and your answer is "grass" – then you lean towards organising life by Categories.

Also known as taxonomies, hierarchies, tags, classes, branches and similar.

That’s when you want to acquire some knowledge about the honey bee and find that it has a latin name – Apis mellifera – mellifera for "honey" of the family "apis" for bee, with no less than 10 more super-categories and you really need to be a highly trained zoologist to assimilate the official knowledge.

Tag this post with "education", and someone looking for tuition fees might read it, not precisely what you meant.

Categories are nouns, they are boxed, limited and requires training and acceptance and belief that the definitions are "right".

Categories are dogmatic as in "accept it" and quite theoretical as in taxonomies based on the male reproductive organs.

Categories requires distribution of common rules and understanding of what each category entails, without that knowledge categories are rendered useless. Or worse, it becomes a source of discord and destruction. This requirement was perhaps always one of the driving forces for the educational system, second only after the historic need for dogmatic religious training.

2. Relationships

When asked "what word is the odd one out among these three – cow, chicken, grass" and your answer is "chicken" – then you lean towards organising life by Relationships.

When we observe that "honey bees" fly, "honey bees" gather nectar, flowers produce nectar, nectar attracts bees, bees get covered by pollen, pollen is brought to other flowers by bees, nectar is converted to honey by the bee… we establish Relationships.

Relationships are endless collections, a web where relationships can easily be followed without training nor much education, and that still could diffuse more precise knowledge about the bee and all that it touches directly or indirectly than any strictly logical taxonomy could do.

That’s when you may do a (IT based of course) multilevel query of the full population of all IBM’ers (if you work there) for: "Everyone that know C++, speak Italian, have friends that live in Rome and where those friends ride bikes and have a bike my size to lend out".

Relationships describe how a cup needs liquids and a mouth, thus makes it a cup.

That’s how children learn, they observe and "get" the relationship between the objects in their vicinity. That’s how our mind works, empirical, learn from observation.

Relationships are verb phrases, based on real activities. It’s pragmatic and not theoretical and have no boundaries as the relationships links everything in one way or the other.

Relationships are human in form while still useful for all other things, after all, all relates to the observer, the human being.

In your daily life you would say "Chanterelles are yellow, look like beakers and are really good when sautéed" instead of "Cantharellus cibarius of cantharellaceae family of the Basidiomycetes class". Relationships instead of Categories is what comes natural, and the listener does not have to be a highly trained mycologist.

Not so at work with it’s category-based forms and questionnaires and hierarchical positions. Heck, even archiving, the high priesthood of categorising is a proper profession!

So why do we still bother with the Category method if the Relationship method is better in all aspects?

Because of technological limits. Organised life required organised facts and information, and for that technology had to be employed.

Categories worked well in the two-dimensional reality of pen and paper where the multidimensional Relationships could not easily be represented. So frameworks suitable for paper were devised – taxonomy, organisational hierarchies, narrative reporting, accounting and even the last kid to the block, tagging.

But now, yep, Relationships are "made for" modern information technology with its ability to represent multiple dimensions and query links for any number of steps with great speed.

Time to refocus on the single most important issue in all what we do: How we capture, distribute and assimilate facts and information – in short how we handle knowledge.

Make that better, then the rest follows – economic efficiency, better resource use and simplified and better educational methods.

Relationships, not Categories, will save the planet.

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