by Lynda Bourne
Knowledge is organic, adaptive and created—it exists in the minds of people. A person’s store of knowledge is built from their life experiences, their observations, and their formal and informal learning. Consequently, what one person knows will be different to what everyone else knows. Some of each person’s knowledge is explicit, meaning they can explain the rules that apply to it. But much is implicit: intuition, gut feelings and other ill-defined but invaluable insights grounded in the person’s experience.
Information is recorded, held in systems and made accessible to people. Good information management systems contain verified information in a useful format. This information is based on data. Because it is written, it is consistent—but it may not be correct. How the data is interpreted to create the information depends on people’s knowledge and perceptions.
Data Is the Starting Point
Data is a set of observations or measurements. If nothing changes in the world, another person can perform the same measurement or observation at another time and gather the same set of data. Data may not be accurate or reliable but it is based on observed facts about something. The potential for error rests in the way the observations or measurements were made.
The Interpretation of Information
Information is organized data. It provides the answer to a question of some kind or resolves an uncertainty.
However, transforming data into information is not automatic; it requires the input of knowledge. Someone has to look at the data and observe patterns that indicate something of significance or make decisions on what is important in a particular context. Information is refined data in a context that is designed to communicate a message to the receiver of the information.
The problem is different people with different knowledge frameworks will interpret the same set of data in different ways. You only need to listen to politicians arguing about the state of the economy to see how different the interpretation of the same set of data can become. The old adage applies, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”
When I reduce my knowledge to a codified or written format it becomes available to others as information. But I have no way of knowing how you or anyone else will use or change the information I have created.
Information Management Systems
Changing data into information is the first application of knowledge in an information management system. And the journey from data to useful information may need several passes through the information management system. PMI’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) identifies:
- Work performance data (gathered by someone during the course of doing project work)
- Work performance information (the data processes by discipline experts into basic information)
- Work performance reports (the basic information, selected, compiled and placed in context to be used by stakeholders).
At each step in this flow, a person applies their tacit and explicit knowledge to the information they have received. They then codify their new knowledge to create another piece of information ready for use by others. The problem with this process in isolation is it is asynchronous and based on individual transactions. This is suboptimal and potentially dangerous.
However, the model of the information management system above is very common and spans global systems, such as Wikipedia down to simple knowledge repositories in project web portals. What’s missing in this type of system is the knowledge management element, which we will look at next time.
An information system on its own will at best simply make useful information available to people. There is no control over how, or if, the information is accessed or used appropriately. In a full knowledge management system, information is the bridge between data and knowledge:
- The raw data represents values attributed to parameters of something.
- Knowledge signifies understanding of real things or abstract concepts.
More on this next time.