Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Unstructured knowledge

@SFDreverman asks (how) does unstructured knowledge hinder the collective intelligence of a group?

To start with, I am slightly puzzled by the word "hinder". Surely unstructured knowledge is usually better than no knowledge at all, although sometimes too much knowledge produces confusion and procrastination. But is structured knowledge always better than unstructured knowledge?

There are different kinds of structure that may be relevant here. Some kinds of knowledge may be formally codified and classified, especially for the purposes of storage in a library (which may be paper-based or electronic or both). But although this kind of structure may be useful for storage and retrieval, what is important for decision-making and learning (in other words, the processes contributing to collective intelligence) is a completely different kind of structure, which we might call its logical structure - the links and dependencies and entailments and contradictions between different fragments of knowledge and would-be knowledge.

Where does this logical structure come from? From another of the processes contributing to collective intelligence, namely sense-making. We make sense of knowledge by discovering (or creating) a logical structure for it. If we fail to find a logical structure for some random collection of would-be knowledge then that clearly limits our ability to do anything intelligent with it.

The discovery of a logical structure by a group of people depends in part on the intelligence and motivation of the group, and is not just an inherent quality of the knowledge itself. So if the knowledge remains unstructured, it may be because the group cannot or cannot be bothered to make sense of it. In which case it is the (insufficient) collective intelligence of the group that hinders the collective intelligence of the group.

The relationship between the storage structure and the logical structure remains problematic however. Library systems and knowledge management systems are generally not designed to reflect the logical structure of the knowledge contained within them, and this may make it hard to navigate the logical structure, or to retrieve knowledge according to the logical demands of the situation. So what we are talking about here is not unstructured knowledge but poorly and inappropriately structured knowledge. So the architecture and usability and effective use of knowledge management systems clearly have an impact on organizational intelligence.


Stefan Dreverman said...

I'm intrigued by your paragraph starting with "The discovery of..."

To put my question into context: The mentioned group is a "group of people that has to (or: is trying to) execute a business process".

The choice you give: "People cannot be bothered or cannot make sense of it." is an answer that's not painting a pretty picture. For the business and for the people in the group. :-)

Richard Veryard said...

Hi Stefan. I was writing generically, since your original tweet didn't reveal your context.

It certainly wasn't my intention to disrespect a specific group of people. You were talking about the possibility that unstructured knowledge might hinder the collective intelligence of a group, and my framework simply provides a number of alternative explanations for this kind of obstacle and therefore several alternative ways of overcoming it.

If there is a mismatch between the demands of a specific business process and the abilities of a group of people to make sense of (or impose a meaningful structure onto) the available knowledge, there could be several things we could look at improving inside the group: skills, tools and techniques, communication styles,
motivation, group structure. Or we might look at redesigning the process, including perhaps preprocessing the knowledge in some way. I'm interesting in finding some combination of improvements that helps people fulfil their individual potential within intelligent organizations, because I tend to think this is good for both the individual and the organization.