Thursday, December 2, 2010

Snow, Disruption and Social Knowledge. Do you know the connection?

Knowledge is not information. Never has been, never will be. But information is often one of a number of inputs to a knowledge activity, and finding ways of making that information resource as good as it can be is challenging, particularly in complex environments. Many KM projects fail because of too much emphasis on information management, and that part itself often fails because the technical tools they use to underpin that aspect of the project are much to rigid, mechanistic and rules based to be of use to knowledge activities in complex environments. Lets not get into the failure to recognize when we are in complex environments!

This has been very apparent in the recent snow falls in the UK. The disruption caused by the snow is immense and very very costly and all the usual debates about lack of preparedness begin again. The debate typically runs along the lines of why we don't have enough gritt, snowploughs, why do we fail where other more climatically challenged countries cope etc etc etc.

These are all important considerations but for me the biggest problem is the collapse of information provision. So many of the journeys we take are regular ones and we are lured into the sense that this is a simple environment where routes are known, timings set routines established. The number of knowledge activities are typically decreased, there are not so many decisions to be made when all is well. But, as soon as there is disruption, caused on this occasion by snow, the complexity of the situation is revealed. Knowledge activities, decision points, are legion and in order to make those activities as effective as possible one of the resources that is needed is accurate timely information. Wherever you look people want information, and the usual sources are in utter disarray. In fact they are usually very misleading, so our ability to complete knowledge activities, that is make decisions and judgements, is seriously reduced. This is applicable to all but as a public transport user a typical example is the utter collapse of train information. Indicator boards show trains on time that never arrive, announce cancellations when the train roles though and no one from the train staff seems to know anything. This scenario can be replayed in almost any travel environment. Staff are not empowered to undertake knowledge activities – regulations the other brake to knowledge effectiveness – and if and when they do the information about that is often hidden, not shared, or shrouded in secrecy.

The fascinating thing in the last few days is to watch the twitter traffic. People reach out to these mechanisms to self organize and share real time insight from multiple parties. People ask questions, anyone on this train, anyone know if this road is open and often the answer is from someone on the ground, on the train looking at the scene. Its is not perfect by any means but the information available is generally far more accurate than the rubbish on offer from, in this case the train operating companies.

This emergent, community generated and, importantly, live and timely information sharing is just one example of how Social Media tools have such great application in knowledge intensive and complex environments, and why Social Knowledge is in fact the only game in town from a KM perspective at present.

If there is to be a government led review of the disruption caused by this latest cold snap I hope that whoever leads it takes note of this insight and looks at establishing very simple cost effective flexible information sharing techniques that are open to all as one part of a more complete approach to dealing with extreme weather. It would not be difficult or costly but the pay off would be immense.

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