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Dave Snowden

… and nearer to the Dust

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One of the deeply negative aspects of the knowledge management period of a decade or more ago was the gross confusion of information with knowledge. One of the drivers was a quote now attributed to Bill Gates “The inventory, the value of your company, walks out the door every evening.” I remember that as originating with the CEO of Hewlett Packard and Gates agreeing with the statement. But I can’t find supporting references for that so we will have to give to Bill for the moment. Now I think it was meant to be a statement about the value of employees but it became a sort of iconic justification for the reduction of knowledge to information, a focus on documents, best practice, taxonomies and the like. In parallel communication was reduced to typed exchanges in communities of practice. I characterised this as the techno-fetishism and I haven’t had any reason to reduce the harshness of that judgement over the years. I took a quote from Polanyi and expanded it into what is now a much quoted rule of knowledge management: We always know more than we can say, we will always say more than we can write down.

Now this was in the early days of data analytics, we were just getting started with key word searches and the like. Companies were experimenting with expertise location based on tracking key phrases in emails and the like. Team formation became a matter of searching CVs in a database rather than building relationships over time. The value of experience was derided as a simple failure to capture and codify. This is before the domination of social media, the growth of wikipedia and the like. People often forget how new these things are and how little we know about their consequences. In a post Trump, post Brexit world more knowledge exists of the dangers of unfettered analytics running on text but we are still less locked into techno-fetishism albeit in a slightly different form, now we debate the role of AI and its ability to mimic or replicated human intelligence.

Human judgement is sacrificed on the altar of data, short term employment contracts at the bottom end, and target hopping short term exploitation by senior executives at the top all mean that what matters is what is measured not meaning. One of the great ills of the domination of cybernetic based systems thinking over the last few decades has been the attempt to reduce dependency on judgement in favour of process, target achievement and a dubious data centric approach to evidence. I’d argue that senior executives, and certainly politicians, have too little knowledge of the nature of statistics to exercise judgement in what to believe in respect of what is presented to them. Also the exploitation of statistics to support a hypothesis rather than to test or create the same is depressing. Policy determines evidence more than evidence creating policy.

So today’s contribution from Gaping Void is timely. Mediocrity is the avoidance of true meaning, and inability to rise above the mundane. I’m reminded of Eliot’s 1934 Choruses from The Rock:

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.

If AI ever replaced human intelligence (as opposed to augment it) then it will because we have dumbed ourselves down to dust, we will have met AI half way and will have been reduced in consequence.

  • Graham Millar

    A marvelous closing paragraph, Dave. Truly inspired.

    (we can argue about the nature of systems thinking later….)

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