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Context, the Difference between Information and Knowledge

In my weekly routine, I try to strike a balance between academic thinking, practical thinking and the balance between the two.

Living in northern Vermont gives me the opportunity to create fun metaphors to think through complex topics, allowing me to add a bit of local color. December is typically a cold, dark and ‘stay inside’ kind of month around here. Yes, there is a little bit of last minute shopping to be done, but often the keyboard and Amazon suffice. However, there is typically little snow in December, thus no real good reason to go outside. As luck would have it, this year has been a little different, with 30 inches (75cm) of snow directly before New Years, kids sledding on the hill, me able to hit the slopes with my boys. This December was indeed, different.

What is the Right Amount of Information?

I am driving my daughter to gymnastics and present to you the following: it is 25 degrees Fahrenheit, snowing and there is 3 inches (~7.5 cm) of snow covering the road. I am traveling a meager 20 miles per hour. I ask, via twitter of course, if my foot should be on the accelerator or the brake, how would you answer me? Skipping the obvious, a stop sign or a car stopped ahead (It was a voice activated Tweet). Is the simple Tweet enough for you to answer my question?

What I am getting at here is that their are a few parts, first we have the data (temperature for example). Information then comes from assembling and analyzing the data. In this case, we have temperature, precipitation and road conditions. Knowledge comes first from putting the information together and adding context. It is snowing, the roads are covered and the temperature is not going to melt the snow. There is probably hard pack snow, on the roadway, underneath the freshly fallen snow. Wisdom is then applying experience and acting accordingly. I will try hard not to drive off the road, remembering that four-wheel drive is great for going, it does nothing for stopping.

In this situation, I am actually traveling up a hill, one way, (and down a hill on the return). This is an important piece of information, without it, an answer should not be given. So, it does depends which direction I am driving. If I am trying to make it up the hill, I need a little more speed. If I am going down the hill, I am hoping that the breaks do their job.

Translation to the Digital World

In the digital age, the difference between information and knowledge is important and it is going to become even more important. This is in no way an academic debate that I am trying to jump into, 20 years late. Many people, smarter than me, have given this discussion much more thought. What I am trying to suggest is that context is a critical piece of information, and without context all you are giving back is data, information at best. In order to present knowledge, information, data, insights and experience need to be in a continuous loop. This is especially true in the digital age of rapid communications. Teams need to think through as many scenarios as possible and make sure the context is carefully considered.

Looking at a Tweet, a Post, a Blog, a Picture or a Status is only one bit of information, usually in isolation and not enough. Some would say it is only one bit of data not even information. The capability to respond, engage or communicate on social channels requires access to information (what is the right answer), but beyond that is ‘How’. It requires experience, insights and, yes, context. What has not changed is that answers, right or wrong, travel far and wide. Context is the idea that the information shared is relevant, in both time and situation to meet the needs of the person asking. In the scenario above, telling me that the car is certainly capable of 140 miles per hour is not an incorrect statement, but it does lack relevance.

The call to action is to make sure that your people, processes and technology are up to the task.

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