Wednesday, 30 January 2008

How Come Your Computer Doesn’t Know What’s Important? Part 1

If your accountant didn’t know what was important you would be very upset. If your secretary didn’t know what was important you would find another one. If your wife didn’t know what was important you would be confused. If your children didn’t know what was important you would feel the need to teach them. If your mother didn’t know what was important you would think she had gone senile. But it’s ok for computers to think all e-mails are equally important, all documents are equally important, all manuals are equally relevant, and all situations that the company is in are equally important. Does this make sense in a world where e-mail is used as the primary means of coordination in organizations?

To most people, knowledge management means making it easier to find information. Seems like a good idea, no? Isn’t that why we all love Google? We can find all kinds of stuff we never knew how to access before.

And, we assume, that people are quite used to finding information, so KM is about making that process easier in world of way too many documents. But this is really the wrong take on things.

People were not built to find information.

Library skills are not exactly an innate human ability. We know how to find experts. We know how to ask questions.
We are capable of recalling our own prior experiences without any effort at all. But, seeking information in documents is a pretty recent human activity. Finding what we need from a vast amount of information (assuming that information is not already in our heads) is an activity we were simply not built to do and, in general, don’t do very well.

We really have not evolved to be able to find information. The most part the important information we use comes from our own experiences. We have evolved to have information find us. When we get reminded of our own prior experiences, that is information in our minds finding us, usually because there has been some non-conscious recognition that this information would be useful right now.

The simple availability of information in written form really doesn’t matter that much. Would you go a doctor with years of experience in your problem or one who has no experience but as memorized every book written on the subject? Would you go to a restaurant with a great inventive chef or prefer to eat with a person who you don’t know who has just purchased a really good cook book?

We believe deeply that experience is the best teacher and that experts are those who have done something many times. Why do we believe this? Because we know that all that we know cannot be explicitly stated. Sometimes we just know it when we see it. Intuitions and insights aren’t magic. They are the result of vast knowledge about a subject that has been indexed unconsciously by the mind to come up at just the right moment when it is needed for the situation at hand. We know that information i our heads will find us. We don’t have to search for it.

How might this work in computers? How might a KM system bring something to your awareness without your having to ask for it?

In order for this to happen the computer must have a model of the specialized world in which it lives. The computer would know what was important to whom and deliver that knowledge when it was needed. This also sounds like something from science fiction but, happily, it isn’t. Here is why:

When people recall information they have gathered from their own experiences they do this effortlessly, but that does not mean we don’t know how they do it. It all has to do with indexing experience in terms of the goals that were directing that experience and the plans that were being used to achieve those goals.

In shipping there are captains, and superintendents, and chief cooks, and engineers. There are many roles and those roles are defined. They are defined by what actions are expected in a given situation. With a complete model of who does what and how under what circumstances, a KM system that used that model would be able to know what new information it received was pertinent to whom and what its level of importance might be. It would do this through use of a complex goal hierarchy that said quite explicitly that while the crew might be hungry fighting an on board fire was more important.

An intelligent KM system could, through proper indexing, know what mattered to whom and bring that information to the proper person’s attention at the proper time. It would do this by knowing what was happening in an enterprise, what the goals and plans of all the actors were, and what goals are more important than other goals.

A model like that would allow for the computer to recognize a situation that occurred in the past and bring it forward for consideration (reminding a user) so that an actor would be better informed by experience, in this case the experience of the company or the industry rather than his own experience.

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