A couple of years ago this week, I gave a talk at an aerospace industry gathering on open source intelligence, web mining, and the changing nature of national security risk. To get conversation flowing, I asked audience members to share what they personally considered to be the greatest security threat facing us today.
As the informal poll progressed, geopolitical destabilization due to climate change was in the lead as the number one threat, followed by a linked phenomenon, natural resource scarcity.
Then a young man (one of only a handful of young people in the room) raised his hand. His response? “The old guys are all retiring! And everything they know is going with them. We’re toast!” That’s my paraphrase (the session was in French), but that’s the gist of what he said, and there were enthusiastic nods of agreement from the other young people in the room.
Part of this breakdown in knowledge transfer may be due to a general reliance on sophisticated systems that encapsulate and automate knowledge at the expense of hands-on know-how (I’m thinking of Airbus’s recent call for a global overhaul of pilot training to improve manual-flying skills that have dangerously eroded due to aircraft automation).
But I am also thinking about the perennial challenge of transferring the kind of knowledge that is encapsulated in messy ‘unstructured content’ – that is to say content like reports, presentations, email messages, and field notes.
A couple of weeks ago, I was speaking to a government agency in DC that voiced a similar frustration over the transfer (or lack thereof) of knowledge embedded in this kind of eclectic content. Unlike the young man at the aerospace gathering, retirement per se wasn’t as much of an issue as were technical challenges (they were making a huge effort to support the transfer of their knowledge to a broad community), but the frustration was just as deep. And, it’s a frustration I’ve heard a thousand times over the past decade.
Which begs the question, why is it so hard? Given the wide availability of search engines, content management systems, text analytics software, data visualization tools and other such knowledge discovery technology, why is it still so difficult for everyone to tap into the knowledge that surrounds them, even inside their own organization?? That’s the focus of my next post, which I think I’ll call “The 3 Biggest Knowledge Discovery Traps.” In the meantime, if you have a top three list of your own, please share it :-). It’s a problem we all need to address if we’re going tap into our collective wisdom to meet the challenges that lie ahead.