Information as thing; knowledge is not

...information would appear to play a pivotal role in efforts to understand both data and knowledge. In the Zins report, definitions for “data” and “information”, though distinct, frequently overlap. Likewise, definitions for “information” and “knowledge” overlap. For no participant, however, is there any evidence for an overlap between or confusion among the terms “data” and “knowledge”.
What’s the difference between information and knowledge? The question endures. Zins (2007) describes the results of a survey of 57 respected experts in information science from 16 separate countries. Each was asked to define the terms “data”, “information” and “knowledge”. Some participants asserted directly the ordering we often observe implicitly as in “Information is the end product of data processing. Knowledge is the end product of information processing.” (p 482). Others asserted that such an ordering is a “fairytale” (p 481).
Whether or not the ordering is correct, information would appear to play a pivotal role in efforts to understand both data and knowledge. In the Zins report, definitions for “data” and “information”, though distinct, frequently overlap. Likewise, definitions for “information” and “knowledge” overlap. For no participant, however, is there any evidence for an overlap between or confusion among the terms “data” and “knowledge”.
What is information? This question has been a repeated topic of discussion in its own right (Braman, 1989; Buckland, 1991, 1997; Capurro. R & Hjørland, 2003; Cornelius, 2002; Machlup, 1983). Buckland (1991), after an analysis of the many senses in which the word is used, concludes that “we are unable to say confidently of anything that it could not be information” (p 256).
Indeed, the efforts people make to understand their world are usefully characterized as acts of information processing (e.g., Broadbent, 1958). According to this view, our intelligence comes from our ability to process the raw data received through our senses into concepts, patterns, and implications. Everything “out there” that we are able to perceive is potential information.
Whether sensory data actually yields information depends. The seminal work of Shannon (Shannon, 1948) and Shannon and Weaver (Shannon & Weaver, 1949) introduced the notion that the information content of a message or event can be measured according to its impact on a recipient’s uncertainty. The message that “Bob is coming to the meeting” has no information value, for example, if its intended recipient knows this already or if the message is given to the recipient in a language she does not understand. In neither case does the message do anything to reduce the recipient’s “uncertainty” concerning who will be attending the meeting.
But making information exclusively about the reduction of uncertainty has come to be seen as overly restrictive (see  Aftab, Cheung, Kim, Thakkar, & Yeddanapudi, 2001; Capurro. R & Hjørland, 2003; Cornelius, 2002). An exchange of information has a sender as well as a recipient, for example, and the exchange is not always collaborative. The sender  may intend to “clarify the situation” and so reduce the recipient’s uncertainty. But of course the sender may have many other intentions. The sender may want to impress or persuade. The sender may want to increase the recipient’s uncertainty (“have you considered these other possibilities…”). The sender may even want to confuse or deceive.
Expressions of Intention  occur  often in the definitions of information provided by participants in the study described by Zins. Intention provides us with one way to distinguish information from data. Information is “ the intentional composition of data by a sender with the goal of modifying the knowledge state of an interpreter or receiver” (p 485). Information is “data arranged or interpreted … to provide meaning.” (p. 486).
A thing can be information or informative from the standpoint of the sender and gibberish or a non-event from the standpoint of intended recipient. I click the “OK” button on a Web site with the intention of making a hotel reservation. As far as I’m concerned the choices I’ve made as summarized on the Web page are information. But there is no information on the recipient’s side if the transmission doesn’t arrive, arrives garbled or is overlooked. To take another example, depending upon our life philosophy or religious conviction, we may or may not see nature as an intentional agent in the transmission of information. Regardless, we express the intention to treat sensory data as information when we say things like “What is my body/this tree/the sky/etc. trying to tell me?”
Just as the context-dependent notions of intention, uncertainty and meaning can be used to distinguish information from data, information as “out there” can be distinguished from  knowledge as “in here”.  Participants in the Zins report describe knowledge as “embodied in humans”, “assimilated” (p. 480), “in the mind of the knower” (p. 481), “held in human brains” (p. 483), “the interiorized content of information” (p. 485), “internalized or understood information” (p. 486).
Information as external is also  “information as thing” Buckland (1991). With reference to this slant on information, one participant in the Zins study referred to knowledge as “no thing” (p. 481). Blair (2002) explores the “thingness” of data, information and knowledge through their substitution for one another in sentences such as “Put the data on the desk” or “Get the data and fax it to New York” (p. 1020). “information” substitutes readily for “data. But “knowledge” does not.
We acquire information quickly; we acquire knowledge only gradually. We can, for example, quickly acquire a book of German grammar and a German-English dictionary. But we acquire the ability to speak German only over time. We might say “I had the book of German grammar last week but seem to have lost it”. But we would not, unless as an aftermath of a serious stroke, say thing like “I knew how to speak German last week, but seem to have lost this ability”.  But just as knowledge is acquired gradually, we can also speak of its gradual loss. We might say, for example, “I knew how to speak German in college but seem to have lost this knowledge over the years…”.
Knowledge is everywhere within us but nowhere in particular. Knowledge is distributed. Knowledge is internal. We have knowledge. But rats too acquire a kind of knowledge as they learn to complete a maze. As Lashley (1950) made apparent in a famous series of experiments, this knowledge is not a thing that can be excised from the hapless rat through surgery. Performance on the maze degrades only gradually as a function the amount of brain tissue removed.  The knowledge is apparently  distributed throughout the cortex of an animal.
Larger assemblies of organisms, organizations of people and whole societies can also be seen to embody various kinds of knowledge. In his careful study of navigational activities on a carrier ship, for example, Hutchins (1994) described an organic process in which different abilities and responsibilities were distributed among the crew in a redundant fashion. This overlap in responsibilities and training procedures gave the ship as a whole an ability to repair and recover from loses in individual personnel.
Knowledge is clearly a good thing and worthy of our efforts to acquire and transfer. But knowledge is not a thing to be managed directly. Knowledge is managed only indirectly through information.  As one participant writes “Knowledge is not transferable, but through information we can communicate about it” (p. 486). Another participant writes “represented knowledge is information” (p. 481).
Consider the example of a manager who wishes to instill in her staff the knowledge of a new procedure of cost accounting. Her objective is that her staff follow this new procedure. She might wish there were a simple “neural plug-in” that could be applied to each member of her staff to accomplish the desired change. But this is not possible. Instead, the manager must use various forms of information. She communicates the new procedure in a meeting. She reinforces this procedure through email reminders and through diagrams posted around the office. She might even place sticky notes on the sides of display screens that her staff use. 
Speeches in meetings, email messages, paper notes that stick -- the manager uses these and other forms of  information as part of her intention to communicate new procedures and to effect a change that is eventually internalized in her staff.
She’ll judge her efforts a success when staff observe changes of procedure as a matter of course. Knowledge is as O’Dell et al. say “information in action” (1998, p. 5). Similarly, we might say that information is “data in motion” – data communicated, data sent or received with intention.
Alas, notwithstanding the manager’s intentions as she sends her directives, to some of her staff, these may be better described as data – ignored or not understood and certainly having no impact on their behavior or ways of thinking.
Will a message have a desired impact on its intended recipients? Obviously, the answer depends upon the content of a message. Some changes in office procedure are much easier to communicate and instill than others. But messages of roughly the same content can have very different impact depending upon attributes of their packaging and delivery.
Elsewhere, I define two terms that are useful in this chapter’s discussion:
An information item is a packaging of information as a thing. Examples of information items include: 1.paper documents, 2. electronic documents, digital photographs, digital music, digital film and other files, 3. email messages, 4. web pages or 5. references (e.g., shortcuts, aliases) to any of the above. Items encapsulate information in a persistent form that can be created, modified, stored, retrieved, given a name, tags and other properties, moved, copied, distributed, deleted and otherwise manipulated. An information item has an associated information form which is determined by the tools and applications that support these operations. Common forms of information include paper documents, e-documents and other files, email messages and web bookmarks.(Jones, 2007, p. 37).
The office manager uses at least three forms of information to communicate a change in office procedure: 1. The spoken words of a meeting.  2. An email announcement. 3. Sticky notes. The second and third are information items. The first is not (though its digital recording would be).
The ways in which an item is manipulated will vary depending upon its form and the tools available for this form. The tools used for interaction with paper-based information items include, for example, paper clips, staplers, filing cabinets and the flat surfaces of a desktop. In interactions with digital information items, we depend upon the support of various computer-based tools and applications such as email applications, file managers, web browsers, etc. The ways we delete a paper document differ from the ways we delete an electronic document (e.g., tossing in the trash or shredding vs. using “Cut” or “Delete”) but some notion of deleting applies to each (a similarity the Macintosh reinforces through its metaphorical “trash can”).
The information item establishes a manageable level of abstraction for discussions of information and knowledge management. There are, for example, many essential similarities in the way people interact with information items, regardless of their form. Whether people are looking at a new email message in their inbox, a newly discovered web site or the business card they have just been handed at a conference, many of the same basic decisions must be made: “Is this relevant (to me)? To what does it relate? Do I need to act now or can I wait? If I wait, can I get back to this item later? Where should I put it? Will I remember to look?”
But also a person’s interactions with information vary greatly depending upon its form. Interactions with incoming email messages, for example, are often driven by the expectation of a timely response and perhaps also by the awareness that, when an email message scrolls out of view without some processing, it is apt to be quickly forgotten. A paper printout of the same message may be easier to read at a opportune moment (e.g., while stuck in traffic or standing in subway) but the printout is also more difficult to retrieve later if misplaced.
Some forms of information favor the sender; others the receiver (see Grudin, 1988).  For example, we usually speak more quickly and easily than we write so that as senders of information, we may prefer the spoken to the written word. But as recipients of information, we generally read faster than we listen. Moreover, we can skim and skip through written information – something not easily done with an oral recording. Asymmetries between sender and recipient in the costs and benefits of different forms of information have implications for both information and knowledge management, which are explored further in the next section.
 

Comments

there are an uncountable

there are an uncountable number of tools out there (more each day) that might provide value for PIM. it is important that tools enable us to situate and interconnect our information into a coherent whole.
Towards this goal, is our KFTF group's work on the Personal Project Planner (http://kftf.ischool.washington.edu/planner_index.htm).

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