Welcome. This is the manuscript of episode 8 of our podcast Success and Inner Growth. Today’s topic is “Information and Knowledge”.
Understanding the concepts of information and knowledge deserves a particularly careful approach. Both terms describe concepts touching the question of what truth is. The discussion about the concept of goes on for thousands of years and engaged some of the smartest minds in philosophy.
But please do not expect today a purely philosophical discussion. I will not try to explore the essence of truth. My intention is instead to understand
- how we can manage the huge piles of information intruding into our lives every day
- how to build a vault of knowledge using this information and
- ways to monetise such knowledge
I start by developing definitions for both terms, “information” and “knowledge”.
Definition of Information
Information is in my view a datapoint or a cluster of datapoints coming from our senses, which resonates with a concept already present in our mind. We acquire information with our senses, although we often employ tools like eyeglasses or measurement devices and skills like reading to access such information.
Everything we touch, hear, see, smell or taste reaches our brain as raw data. The brain tries immediately to organise this raw data stream and searches for patterns. After finding some familiar patterns, the brain tries to connect them with concepts already stored in the mind. Through this process, data acquires meaning.
The brain filters a lot of information out. This happens whenever it fails to connect the input to a cluster, or if it relates to a cluster judged by the brain as irrelevant.
Examples are the sound of the water flowing in a river nearby, while we sit in our home for dinner. It is also the sound of the engine in our car, if it remains within the usual pattern.
If you wear eyeglasses, you might have realised that you tend to overlook some tiny objects or spots without your glasses, especially in difficult light. The part of the brain responsible for creating the pictures you serve to your mind will just filter out, what it sees as random noise.
Information and Concepts
So, information consists of the input provided by our senses, structured into clusters which might be quite complex, called concepts. If such a cluster is invoked, it will be logged in our memory. Our brain filters out as noise a big part of the input generated through our senses. This happens, whenever the brain judges data either as irrelevant or as incomprehensible. Such noise does not reach our mind.
What is Information?
Information is that part of raw data provided through our senses, which has resonated with some concepts already present in our mind and thus acquired meaning for us.
Such information will be saved in our memory. But depending on our current state of mind and level of attention and focus, we might be aware or unaware of that information, and of the fact that it entered our mind.
The Value of Information
This new information might be true, or not true. Somebody might have lied to us. We might have seen the image through a mirror. Our eyeglasses might have made the object narrower and higher. It could be possible, that we were looking out for something, which was there indeed, but we did not find it.
Untrue information has a low value, or even a negative value. If we do not realise that such information is wrong, it can lead us to do things, which are damaging, or to miss important opportunities. In short, only reliable information is valuable. In other words, valuable information must be true, and we must know that it is true.
Outdated information is also of limited use and can be misleading. If you know that the sun was shining yesterday, and there was no rain, it will not help you to decide whether you should carry a rain jacket today. On the other hand, the information about the weather yesterday might still help you to judge, if you want to water the plants in your garden today.
So, information may be outdated for one purpose, but retain some relevance for another purpose. But for most purposes, timely information is much more valuable than stale information.
Some information is very valuable for some people, and completely useless for others. Think for example about the sales performance of a certain type of boots in a town X in November. If this sales data contains unexpected results, it might be very important for the marketing department of the company selling it.
But the same information is completely useless for a person, who just bought boots from that company. What counts for him is the fact, that the boots keep his feet warm and dry.
Information is only valuable, if it can help you to solve a problem or to reach your goals. Otherwise it is for you useless and irrelevant.
What is Knowledge?
Let’s no move to the knowledge part of our Information and Knowledge title. The first question is: what is knowledge, and how is it different from information?
Definition of Knowledge
I want to define the term knowledge as a vault of information validated as useful and reliable. The information elements in the vault also need to support each other.
Importantly, all the information blocks in the structure are available on demand. This includes some metadata like the source of a specific piece of information. Additionally, contextual information about the relationship between different information objects is also readily available in a well-kept knowledge vault.
Maybe you noted that I did not say true information. Instead I used the words validated as useful and reliable. This route allows me to navigate around questions like “What is true?” or “What is a fact?”
Actually, I believe that such discussions lead to nowhere. What is now true: That the sun rises in the morning and sets down in the evening? Or that the earth is spinning around its own axis, and circling around the sun?
It seems that both statements are true, and at the same time they contradict each other. Is now the earth moving, or the sun? For most purposes of daily life, I choose the statement “the sun rises and sets”, because it serves me well. It is validated by the observations of billions of people, and I can rely on it. I can be sure, that the sun will rise again tomorrow morning, and in the evening, it will set down again.
I know of course that I would have to amend that statement, if I would ever choose to travel to the moon, or if I had to manage earth observation satellites.
Even if I use a GPS to travel in the morning to my workplace, I rely on the statement that says: “the earth spins around its own axis and has the shape of a ball.” Obviously, I know that my GPS needs satellites. Still, I trust the information of my GPS and marvel at the same time at the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen.
So, validating information does not mean for me to prove that it’s the absolute truth. I check instead three other points:
- Is it relevant for my purpose?
- Is the source trustworthy and credible?
- Can I rely on that information, is it reasonably stable and will it help me tomorrow the same way as it does today?
If I am satisfied on all three counts, I will appoint the information as a honoured member of the body of my known truths, of my knowledge.
The Relationship Between Information and Knowledge
Although knowledge is a vault containing information, knowledge is not the plural of information. Not all information deserves a place in my knowledge vault. And a pile of super true, but unorganised information fails also to qualify as a body of knowledge.
On the other hand, a good knowledge vault may contain historic information, which has been in the meantime amended. Even if it is no longer seen as accurate, it provides context for current information.
Knowledge can help us to evaluate up-to-date information and to ask the right questions. And knowledge can also help us to create value.
The Information and Knowledge Value Chain
The million Dollar question is now: How can my knowledge, this cherished vault of well-organised known truths, help me to create value?
I want to use here a simple example to demonstrate value creation by a knowledge worker.
A typical knowledge worker is a medical doctor. He has hopefully abundant access to validated medical information, coming from his studies at university, his experience, his continuing education and from peer exchange.
For this example, l assume that you observed your body routinely and you found an unusual skin condition.
Therefore, you go to the skin doctor and present it to him. You will tell him what you have seen and done about it.
The doctor will use his knowledge and his information about your health status to create a context to your observation.
Possibly he will collect additional information. He could ask you for example about your daily routine, your eating and sleeping habits. He could also do a blood test or remove a sample of your skin and send it to a laboratory.
Afterwards the doctor will recommend a course of action. This action could be the application of a cream or other medicine. Possibly he could also suggest that you change some habits, e.g. what you eat and drink. Finally, the doctor could suggest you could try another soap for washing clothes.
The doctor could also remove the bad spot on your skin. In the end he will probably suggest taking a bundle of related actions.
This way the doctor transformed a rather disturbing observation into an action plan with the potential to mitigate the symptoms and to solve the underlying problem.
Such an action plan is valuable.
This was the manuscript episode 8 of the podcasts Success and Inner Growth. We discussed the relationship between information and knowledge. As a result, we found that knowledge is a vault of validated information. Additionally, knowledge structures information and makes it available on demand.
In other words, a person with knowledge can access relevant information on demand and create a context by adding related information to raw information.
Knowledge allows you ideally to transform a single piece of unexpected information into an action plan, thus helping to address an underlying problem and often turning it into an opportunity.
The next episode will come by the end of November. We will in discuss how we can plan our days and weeks in a way that helps us to live a life of Success and Inner Growth.
Text versions of all past podcast episodes are here.