The Perils of Information vs. Knowledge, Empowerment

Stan Lepeak, Managing Director Global Research

Two tenets that underpin the pervasiveness of computing and the Internet are that access to more information and user empowerment are always good things. First the personal computer, then the Internet, and now powerful hand-held devices and social media services are “empowering” users to access corporate computing systems and reams of data and information from anywhere at anytime. But what is the cost of this empowerment?

EquaTerra recently released an article examining the potential pitfalls of self-service applications gone wild. It addresses how manager self-service  tools, while enabling managers to perform such tasks as approve employee timesheets, process a pay raise, approve an invoice payment, and a myriad of other activities potentially do not leave time for actually managing the core business. Self-service applications’ time-sucking capabilities are further exacerbated by e-mail, 24×7 smart phone usage and web surfing.

Similarly, knowledge worker and knowledge management guru Tom Davenport penned a piece in the current issue of the McKinsey Quarterly on the need to “rethink knowledge work.”  In it he compares and contrasts the competing and divergent models for information access and dissemination: free access and structured provisioning. While Davenport acknowledges a balance of both models is needed, he is clearly in the camp of (re)focusing on a more structured approach, at least for certain types of knowledge workers.

The free access approach is easier: give workers all the tools and information access possible and let them figure out on their own what information to get from where, and how to use it to support business needs. The structured approach is more complicated. It requires an understanding of what information and information sources knowledge workers need, and then gathering and preparing it in advance for just-in-time dissemination. The danger with this approach is not accurately anticipating needs, being late with delivery, or missing out on capturing the best, most current source of relevant information.

As buyers increasingly focus on outsourcing more strategic, knowledge-based work (e.g., analytics, research and development) the problem of efficient information access becomes more relevant and prevalent. Anyone who has thrown a question over the wall to an uninitiated offshore KPO (knowledge process outsourcing) provider will appreciate the hit or miss likelihood of getting a timely, relevant or insightful answer. And simply because lower costs allows a provider to throw ten people (who don’t know what they’re looking for) at a problem instead of just one does not increase the likelihood of success.

These challenges are not unexpected. Buyers need to separate 1) the need for more and better information packaged in a consumable manner and delivered in a timely fashion from 2) using a third party to answer strategic business questions that only they themselves can or should answer. If a buyer cannot suitably answer questions and make decisions that are best for the business when they have a reasonable amount of information to do so, they should exit that line of business and not hope that a third party can provide the magic knowledge to reinforce their competitive credentials.

The best way for western business to compete against increasingly aggressive and lower cost competitors and markets is to get better and more prolific at performing knowledge work. Outsourcing can aid in this effort. Outsourcing service providers need to focus on providing clients the best tools to enable what Davenport coins as the free access model. More importantly, they must do a better job at providing relevant information – and when possible insights – via the structured provisioning model. Core to this effort is buyers doing a better job of defining their information needs and recognizing which specific business activities warrant the focus of their increasingly scarce, competitively differentiated knowledge capabilities.



One Response to “The Perils of Information vs. Knowledge, Empowerment”

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