Knowledge and its management have always been subjects of interest, but their importance has increased dramatically in our lifetime. And it's not necessarily the knowledge that exists that we're interested in, but rather our capacity to double it. Knowledge is the raw material of economic progress, not simply information. If information is data in context (and it is), then knowledge is information in action, so doubling it is a measure of economic well-being.
In the 1980s, Buckminster Fuller, the American futurist and architect, invented the knowledge doubling curve, which has been misunderstood, at least in the context of time. Like many things that double, it's not sufficient that the doubling occur, but that it happens at an ever-increasing rate. Fuller posited that one unit of human knowledge was equal to the knowledge humanity accumulated between year one and 1500 CE. It then doubled by about the year 1750, when the Industrial Revolution began. It doubled again by about 1890, and by 1900, knowledge was doubling every century. Even that wasn't enough. By World War II, knowledge was doubling every 25 years; IBM now predicts that within the next couple of years, it will be doubling every 12 hours.
The idea of managing knowledge is both vital and perplexing. It is perplexing because knowledge has always been something that human minds make out of information. Its synonyms—understanding, comprehension, awareness—all imply a mind acting on information. So given all that, how does one manage knowledge in any systematic way?
Logically, knowledge management is the grouping of tools, technologies, and processes that constantly and consistently make the right information available to decision-makers. In that context, information is a substrate on which the minds of decision-makers act, in much the same way an enzyme acts on sugar.
But getting to the level of a substrate takes a great deal of work. Systems have to capture data that analytics run on to produce the raw information. And in the best circumstances, predictive models have to run constantly to ensure that the information in circulation is what's needed at the moment.
All this is happening today in the most sophisticated companies, but it's still a minority or bare plurality of them. Many, many more companies remain sitting on the fence waiting, and that's too bad, because this emphasis we have on data, information, and even knowledge today is a mere dress rehearsal. By 2020, research suggests that there will be roughly 50 billion devices connected to the Internet. Barring a catastrophic population increase in the next few years, the majority of those devices will be (already are, actually) not directly committed to a human.
They are the smartish machines that can call home to report incipient flaws and breakdowns, order more supplies, report today's sales, and who knows what else.
All these devices will emit data matter-of-factly, and a company's success will be intricately linked to the home office's ability to interpret and act on data. That data will also be cultivated into knowledge about supply, demand, satisfaction, loyalty, and much more. Managers will increasingly depend on interpretation of this data because it will be all that we have; there will be no telltale customer conversation to provide a narrative.
Our ability to get knowledge management right today is like boot camp for the future. Many of the techniques and technologies we develop and implement today will still be in operation by 2020 and possibly a generation after that. That's why there isn't a lot of time to sit on the fence, to wait until someone else shows us the way. The IT industry is facing the same kind of challenge today that it last faced at the turn of the millennium, when we had to convert to four-digit dates or be sunk. To my mind, there is nothing more important than understanding and internalizing knowledge management for any company that expects to be around in, say, 2021.
Denis Pombriant is the founder and managing principal of Beagle Research Group and The Bullpen Group. He is a widely published CRM analyst in the U.S. and Europe, and his research spans all areas of social CRM, cloud, and mobile computing. His latest book, The Subscription Economy, is available on Amazon.