The computer has replaced the kettle of molten steel as the representative symbol of a growing economy. The assembly line has given way to the cubicle farm. Instead of coke and iron ore, information is now our critical raw material. We transform data and information into knowledge and ideas: An invisible production line co-exists with the factory floor and its output is knowledge. Every physical product has a knowledge component which comprises an increasing portion of its value. A company’s worth is now based on its unique body of knowledge rather than its inventory.
This puts information technology in an interesting position. For all of our history, we’ve treated information and knowledge as an unintended consequence of technology. Now, as the economy moves from things to thinking, critical information is less and less susceptible to rigid constraint, a format capable of being digested and spit back out by machines.
A poultry problem
A man and his wife had the good fortune to possess a goose, which laid a golden egg every day. Lucky though they were, they soon began to think they were not getting rich fast enough, and, imagining the bird must be made of gold inside, they decided to kill it in order to secure the whole store of precious metal at once. But when they cut it open they found it was just like any other goose. Thus, they neither got rich all at once, as they had hoped, nor enjoyed any longer the daily addition to their wealth. Aesop
From a management point of view, Aesop describes two kinds of knowledge assets: intellectual assets and knowledge workers. Golden eggs represent intellectual property, the unique processes and various types of knowledge and experience that exist within our organizations. IT captures some, but by no means all, of this rich stream. The bits that can be documented, digitized and chopped up into databases all get IT attention but there is less certainty regarding the bigger parts, such as individual’s creative ideas, insightful conversations among coworkers or a discussion focused on an engineer’s design.
The second type of knowledge asset, the goose, represents the engine of production in the new economy, the knowledge worker. People create this asset and they use it daily, extracting the value from the golden egg. This human role is not readily reduced to bits and bytes, which poses an interesting challenge for IT
IT departments are experts at building information pipelines for the desktop, but that’s not enough anymore. Those dreadfully efficient pipes are creating geese overstuffed with information, which is great for pate but not so good for productivity and creativity. IT can’t continue to treat the use of information and knowledge as unintended system consequences. Information managers must shift attention from volume and availability to content-related issues such as quality and reliability.
This is not a task for IT to tackle in isolation. Fortunately help is available to adapt techniques from other organizations such as marketing and human resources departments and information management. Marketing departments have product development methods that reveal and define customer needs and can help design products to meet those needs. Human resources departments have a broad portfolio of organizational development approaches that can improve communication from which IT can borrow. In addition, librarians have hundreds of years of experience understanding how people seek and use information, much of which could be applied to IT systems. Through these adoption processes we’ll build stronger relationships and better understand content. Success in the information economy will require these kinds of partnerships that combine technology expertise with a sophisticated understanding of the content and its use.
Byron Glick is a principal at Coherent Partners, LLC, a technology management-consulting firm in Madison, Wisconsin. He can be contacted via the web at www.coherentpartners.com or via telephone at 608/442-0120.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.