By Joseph Rubenfeld
Why shouldn't we have a repository of knowledge for improving life's problems and opportunities?
Knowledge Management (KM) is becoming a popular tool for improving productivity throughout the corporate world. KM includes capturing, organizing and disseminating valuable knowledge within an organization. KM attempts to promote learning and innovation organization-wide.
This is a proposal to apply the principles of KM toward the goal of making the world a better place.
Life is tough. We are constantly called upon to make decisions in a host of different areas without having enough information and experience to make an "intelligent choice." Many of these choices significantly affect our lives and those of our families.
The principles of KM can help provide the wisdom to guide us in life's most important decisions regarding aspects of relationships, education, career, religion, ethics, morality, health and even entertainment. Through a single "Portal to Life," it is possible to collect, structure and browse a multitude of bits of wisdom and experience -- what works and what doesn't.
Knowledge management is not just computer systems -- although there are a large and growing number of computer systems to support KM. KM includes such concepts as nurturing "communities of practice" and encouraging knowledge sharing by providing space (both real and virtual) in which people can have discussions. Similarly, KM for Life will provide computer facilities for threaded discussions as well as real meeting places for face-to-face discussions and counseling sessions.
Today a large segment of the population falls into the categories of advisor/counselor/teacher. This includes guidance counselors, clergy, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, physicians, nurses and other healthcare providers, accountants, lawyers, teachers, professors, consultants, researchers, sales and marketing professionals, managers and supervisors, coaches, military officers and many government employees.
In addition, there are many organizations that play primarily a counseling role. These include Alcoholic Anonymous and its knockoffs, AAA and its knockoffs, scouting, American Association of Retired Persons and its knockoffs, and many others. The Project Managers Association has developed a large document entitled, Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). This could be used as a model for KM for Life.
The KM for Life body of knowledge could be issued periodically in book form with periodic updates similar to an encyclopedia as well as a hyperlinked document accessible from the Internet. In the interest of brevity, it could be restricted to brief descriptions of major points, with numerous references to other documents and Web sites containing details and examples.
The Internet and, to a large extent, the library system, have a tremendous amount of data and information. Generally "data" refers to raw facts and measurements of various quantities while "information" involves some analysis of the data such as charts or summaries. Knowledge, in this context, refers to an even higher level of information.
Knowledge is closely related to understanding or wisdom. Basically, knowledge includes how to use the information to solve problems. There are three phases to knowledge in this context. Phase one corresponds to understanding the problem or diagnosing the problem. This includes gathering the information necessary to make a decision or propose a solution. Phase two corresponds to choosing and defining one or more potential approaches to a solution. Phase three involves presenting the solution and perhaps managing the progress of the implementation of the solution.
All of this must be capable of being presented on each of three distinct levels. One level is for the experts in the subject domain. This involves using technical terms and sophisticated approaches. The second level is for practitioners or advisors or counselors who utilize the system to advise others, but are not experts. They are expected to have some familiarity with the subject, however. They need a more detailed and in-depth explanation than the end user, who interacts on the third level, the layperson's level. They need have no knowledge of the solution area and require a very straightforward explanation in simple language with lots of help available.
The decision-making process often involves making decisions based on incomplete information. It may include requests for new information, so there is an interplay -- an iterative process -- between the initial stage of requesting information (information gathering), and the completion of the decision-making process. Between the two phases there is a lot of jumping back and forth.
The first phase is categorizing the problem and deciding what information is known about the case. This includes trying to match it with previously known cases or categories of problems. Each general category will have its own list of additional types of information required. There can be a cost associated with acquiring various additional types of information, whether it is medical tests or sensitivity of questions that have to be asked.
Interesting historical note: one of the first artificial intelligence programs, Eliza, was a simulated psychiatrist with virtually no psychiatric expertise, merely a program that was able to simply ask questions -- frequently by replaying words that the patient presented. Eliza was able to illicit a tremendous amount of information and openness from humans who interacted with the system, because they knew they were dealing with a computer, a machine, even though the computer had no ability to provide counsel or advice of any value.
Knowledge Management Tools
There are several well established technologies and tool sets that can be used for developing a system to support this type of activity. One is known as "knowledge engineering," which has been used extensively over the past 20 years to develop expert systems by conducting structured interviews with experts in the field. The second technology, which has been commercially available for the past 10 years, is called case-based reasoning (CBR) in which a system automatically stores a history of cases, that is, problem definition or questions, together with successful answers from the past.
A third technology involves the use of frames with slots in which a script describes the problem, the various slots indicate what information is required or helpful in determining a solution, and other slots indicate the likelihood of various diagnoses or decisions that are indicated based on the information in the requirement slots. A number of other tools are commercially available for generally searching and distributing knowledge. These can be immediately applied to this application so no new technology need be developed for this new application area.
Knowledge Management Centers
Knowledge management is not just a technology or simply a set of computerized tools but it involves human interaction as well. The idea is to establish a set of centers which may be associated with guidance counselor centers in school and in religious institutions, libraries and other locations. One of the goals will be to bridge the so-called "digital divide" so that the people who are most in need of guidance and counseling will have easy access to these facilities.
The human organization will involve several tiers. One level will consist of top-notch experts, of which there are very few, in each of the areas or domains for which the organization provides counseling. They will set the policy and be the governing body. They will also provide guidelines for and review material in the system.
The next level down will be professional practitioners in these areas. They will provide supervisory experience and consulting advice for the following level down, which will be the paralegal and paramedical; nurses and so on. That is, people who are not quite professionals but have more than the layperson's knowledge in those areas.
Beneath that, the next level in the organizational structure will be people who are employed to operate the centers. The lowest level will be volunteers, also to operate the centers. These last two levels will advise/counsel by accessing the system, (the general public will also have direct, but limited, access to the system). The theory is that ordinary people, who are not experts, will be able to provide expert counseling to the people in need.
Initially the knowledge base of the system will be relatively sparse, in terms of handling specific problems and questions. With time it will grow and be able to handle many more problems. Many of the problems will be repetitious of other problems that the system will have seen in the past, and over the course of time, it will know what works best and what does not. The general term of art in the information technology world is "best practices."
There are many examples of this type of collaborate sharing of knowledge on the Internet today. For example when you search for a particular book or all the books on a particular subject, you also get access to reviews of the book by others who bought them, as well as other books bought by the people who bought the book for which you searched. In the stock market, there is an amazing amount of information on the Net of people asking and answering questions regarding virtually every stock on the market!
Why shouldn't we have a repository for collaboration and collection of knowledge for improving life's problems and opportunities?
Joseph Rubenfeld is New York City's Deputy Commissioner for Advanced Technology. As such he has made a presentation on Knowledge Management to the City's 50 agencies. He is the original author of the well-known CHAOS chess playing program.