The worldwide commodity of the 21st century

The age of information

The important worldwide commodity driving the worldwide IT industry (not to mention many other service-oriented industries such as advertising and marketing) is information.

Information - the powerful commodity

Ever since the advent of computers, the telephone network, and special low-cost storage disks like CDs, information is seen by businesses as a valuable product. Not only can information can be quickly created, modified, distributed and sold at minimal cost, but depending on precisely how and what is presented, it has the powerful psychological potential of shaping the way people look and behave; what experiences and knowledge people will encounter and learn; and what products and services people will buy and business leaders can sell to the global community.

This is the subtle power of information on all of us. The ease of distribution, its content, and the way it is presented, information is capable of unleashing tremendous psychological and behavioural power in any individual or society that values it. No where else is this better understood than:

  • in the advertising industry; and
  • in the education market.

Information is a commodity in the business world just as much gold is. A person who reads information is a consumer because he/she is consuming (i.e. reading) the information. Even if the person does not purchase the information, the fact that he/she is reading and absorbing information makes that person a consumer.

Similarly the mere presence of a book or a web site containing information is in itself a potential business. As soon as a person picks up the book or looks at the web page and reads the information, the business of selling information (whether it has a monetary amount attached to it or not) is enacted.

Now if the information is of high quality (i.e. good content and good presentation to the point that information is seen as valuable knowledge), then its value is as great as gold, if not greater. What you can achieve with information if it is done right is potentially enormous for humanity.

Is information worth its weight in gold - whatever that amount is?

As the old saying goes: "Knowledge is power". However, this statement only holds true if information is knowledge. In the real world, information on its own does not constitute knowledge.

Try to think of information as like a reservoir of water. What does it do? It does nothing other than sit there for all to admire. But given the right tools or if it is put to use in the right way, a reservoir of water can be made to perform some extraordinary work for society (e.g. to produce electricity or to keep alive all living things). And only then will the true value of water be properly appreciated, understood and acted upon.

The same is true of information. Information has to be carefully worked upon if it is to be interpreted and understood as knowledge. Only when information is transformed into knowledge can it have the potential of affecting the lives of everyone, perhaps by performing some kind of action like making us smile, or helping us to buy a product or service from a local business.

The problem with information today

Unfortunately, with the advent of new and faster technologies, a rather serious social problem has emerged: the information we have generated by all our wondrous and ubiquitous technology has grown too fast and has resulted in a glut of poorly presented information for us to understand and apply whatever knowledge is contained in the information in a meaningful and appropriate way. (1)

OECD, a leading authority in ecomonic matters, agrees with this assessment. They have said:

"...knowledge and information tend to be abundant; what is scarce is the capacity to use them in meaningful ways." (2)

To get a better handle on the problem, US computer giant IBM has analysed the information overload in greater detail. According to IBM estimates, the amount of corporate data generated worldwide is doubling every 12 to 18 months and that a mere 15 per cent of this is structured data (i.e. true knowledge in the minds of corporate users). The rest is simply stored away as computer printouts in archives or filing cabinets, or digitised and stored on CDs and magnetic disks.

There is obviously an overabundance of information in the modern world of which probably much of it is already obsolescent (3). As US 'information anxiety' expert Saul Wurman said:

"The greatest crisis facing modern civilisation is going to be how to transform information into structured knowledge. Society faces an overabundance of data that needs to be evaluated and acted upon." (4)

Clearly the problem has to do with not developing or making accessable a wide range of quality and low-cost tools for the mass market so that people can properly manage information.

How do we solve the information problem?

Among some of the ideas being suggested to solve this serious social problem is to apply accelerated learning techniques to the information so as to help people see the quality information known as knowledge and so make it easier and more enjoyable for people to learn and apply the real essence of human knowledge.

The application of accelerated learning techniques to information is not new. It is known that major companies like Coke are applying accelerated learning techniques in their advertising. If only the same techniques could be applied more extensively in research and education to help people learn new and/or socially-useful ideas of benefit or potential benefit to everyone else.

Other solutions include greater cooperation between individuals and organisations in generating quality information, and to standardise and unify all human knowledge using a central database system.

Also by making available special new and low-cost software tools designed to help simplify and summarise great chunks of text, it will almost certainly benefit everyone working in the information industry.

Whatever the case, it is now becoming clear in the words of acting associate vice-chancellor of IT at Houston Community College System (HCCS), Mr James Vasquez, that:

"The days of IT forcing change and forcing people through the process are over." (5)

The time for subtle persuasion rather than brute force, and quality over quantity, is fast becoming a mandatory part of living in the 21st century and beyond.

The search for quality information has begun

Proof that quality information wins out more often than quantity information can be seen in the number of hits made to various Web sites on the Internet.

As Technical Director of Ezone Corporation USA, Mr Simon Edis, once remarked on the quality of Web sites, the most compelling, interactive and fast loading content attracts a large audience to a web site and keeps them coming back for more. Also a web site with animation, sound and interactivity will improve numbers to the web site and ensure audience interest and participation.

As Bakunowicz of Telstra Multimedia noted:

"Children [and adults who want to learn something new] always find books with illustrations more interesting than plain text, and the same is true of multimedia." (6)

Managing information is a core activity

So what do we do with all this knowledge? With so much emphasis on gathering information and finding the odd gems by way of knowledge that will benefit our lives, it is no wonder more and more business experts are emphasising the need to manage information (or more accurately manage knowledge).

Having lots of information (and presenting it all) is not the key to success. It is the ability to sort out the information and choose the important knowledge relevant to today's climate and in achieving our personal objectives which is the key to success in everything that we do.

So how do we best manage the knowledge? And how do we communicate our needs to people when we find a method of managing our knowledge?

The problem of managing and communicating our knowledge needs?

This is perhaps the two biggest questions to face the IT industry. People in business have their own ideas of how to manage knowledge (and so does the consumer), but their language for communicating that need is different to people working in the IT industry. How do business professionals manage their knowledge properly by developing the right IT tools?

Come to think of it, what exactly does the average person on the street want to see in the technology assuming they can afford it and can see a benefit in having that technology?

Information management consultant David Jones of Acumen Alliance has summed it up from a business perspective in this way:

"One key difficulty has been that the business side of organisations hasn't had an appropriate language to describe their information requirements. They've had to resort to using the language of the technology, and they haven't often been confident about doing that.

What we're now seeing is a growing recognition that the business side of organisations needs to develop appropriate ways of determining and articulating what its information needs are." (7)

What can we do about it?

Well, there are a number of things we could do to make the communicating easier between seemingly disparate groups in society like the business professionals and the IT experts:

  1. Firstly, find common ground between all groups concerned. What is it that we are all trying to achieve?
  2. If what we are trying to achieve is really that important (e.g. you need to have constant reporting of financial figures at all times), then simplify our language and the technologies available to us.
  3. What do we want to see in our technology if technology is to be seen as the solution to people's needs.
  4. What kinds of knowledge are to be recognised, stored and presented using the technology?
  5. Because more and more technology and certain types of knowledge (or just plain information to others until they have recognised it as knowledge) has a cost associated with it, find out how much people are willing to pay for a quality solution to their problems.

    NOTE: It is amazing how the cost of something can quickly get people to focus on the things that really matter and so simplify their problems in almost next to no time at all.

  6. How much time do we have to implement the technology needed to manage our knowledge and provide a solution?
  7. When a solution is found, will it save us the time and money to implement the solution?
  8. If it does, then make it happen for everyone concerned. And make sure it remains simple and easy to use for future generations to come.

By doing this, people who are managing knowledge will quickly find a defensible basis for making certain decisions, actions, advice and accountability.

Is it the IT professionals' responsibility to deal with knowledge management?

No. IT professionals are there to develop and present the technology for managing people's knowledge and not to control the quality of information (i.e. knowledge) generated by other people. As Jones puts it:

"So they [the IT group] end up looking as if they are responsible, when they are not, because they don't control the quality of information resources themselves. It's a business [and consumer] issue." (8)

Unless IT groups are themselves business professionals and/or consumers, it is the IT task to develop the tools for managing our knowledge and nothing more. As Jones said:

"We're saying there's no silver-bullet technological solution to information management. You need to approach it broadly in the same way you've been doing with other resources. Above all, you have to understand that the quality of information is a business issue, not a technological one." (9)