17 October 2008

Information Is Not Knowledge

"Information is not knowledge. Knowledge comes from theory."
-- W. Edwards Deming

When Sir Isaac Newton was conked on his head by the falling apple (as the story goes), he had information. The information was, "apples fall from trees" or, put more generically, "things fall to the earth."

However, Newton still had no "knowledge."

Newton's comprehension of the facts did not provide "knowledge" that would be useful in any significant way. After all, people had known for centuries that things fall to the earth and, if one didn't want them falling to the earth, one must be certain that the objects are held securely in their present location.

Once, however, Newton began to construct "theory" around the fact that things fell to the earth, valuable "knowledge" began to spring from the "information" at hand.

For example, based on the "theory" that gravity was a force that always acted in precisely the same way, experiments could be set up to measure just how gravity functioned. From these experiments and calculations, we now know that the gravity of the earth accelerates objects at ~ 32.2 feet per second-squared.

This principle applies in business as well.

Having worked in the world of business management and computers since the time of the introduction of the personal computer (PC) in the early 1980s, I have found that many, many business people -- from owners, to CEOs, to CFOs, to middle managers, and on down the line -- confuse "information" with "knowledge". In fact, a very common fallacy is the belief that more "information" will lead to better management which will, in its turn, lead to better results.

Therefore, organization spend a considerable amount of some very limited resources (namely, time, energy, and money) acquiring or creating systems to give them more "information."

When all is said and done, however, these business folks often are not significantly better off than they were before they spent their precious time, energy and money, simply because, like the world before Newton, they have no "theory" by which to interpret the information they have. Without this theoretical "framework" in which to fit their body of information, many of their management actions are not much more than flailing at the wind. Some of their efforts work and some do not, but they generally cannot tell you (specifically or accurately) why one initiative worked and another similar one failed.

There are three required steps to gathering what one needs to take timely and effective action:

1. One must take the data (the raw, undigested facts -- perhaps line upon line of numbers) and convert the data into "information."

2. "Information" is data "digested" and put into a form (i.e., a chart, a graph, summed, analyzed statistically) that allows the user to quickly assess the essential implications of the underlying data.

3. The resulting "information" must be placed into a theoretical context -- a "framework" -- whereby the potential outcomes of any actions that might be indicated by the information may be fully comprehended.

Without these three steps, your organization may drown in data or become infatuated with "information" and, yet, never be able to move effectively when times are the most challenging.

©2008 Richard D. Cushing

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