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Structure of Decision Making

Let me attempt to convey my personal understanding of a few critical terms and concepts and their application in a professional and even personal environment. It is my contention that having a strong handle on verbiage is vital when one attempts critical analysis or decision making. In regard to Knowledge Management or Knowledge-Based Decision-Making, there is no exception.

This is especially true when you consider situations where two or more people are tasked with the completion of a project. Each member of that team must be on the same page and be able to effectively communicate using words that everyone in that group understands equally. This idea becomes vital when a team is dealing with critical analysis or even details. Examples include but are not limited to a surgical team, an executive board, an engineering team, a platoon, or even the family unit.

There are quite a few varying perspectives in the leadership field in regard to terms and definitions surrounding the discipline. This is my attempt to set forth the meaning of several key words to better explain or identify the essential qualities of these terms.

The words “data, information, knowledge, tribal knowledge, Knowledge Management, and Knowledge-Based Decision-Making” can all mean different things to different people based on experience and education. In an effort to bring cohesion to the understanding of these words, we need to better define them.

The following definitions are derived out of other definitions, master level course reading and peer-reviewed journal articles written in the last three years (of the time of this entry). These new perspectives help to more accurately define the spirit of the terms in a way that may make it easier to relate to the material.

  • Data - a body of facts, statistics, or items of information collected together for reference, analysis or planning.
  • Information – usually (but not always) factual data or details received or communicated about a person or thing.
  • Knowledge – awareness, understanding or an acquaintance of facts, information, and skills acquired via experience or education (IE: exposure).
  • Tribal Knowledge - any unwritten information essential to the production of a product or to the performance of a service or process that is known by a select subgroup but not commonly known by others either in or out of the main group.
  • Knowledge Management – the discipline of efficient capture, evaluation, distribution, and effective use of knowledge and information; usually within an organization.
  • Knowledge-Based Decision-Making - The process of selecting the logical choice via interaction of knowledge, experience, judgments, data, or details in a particular situation.

It is important to understand these concepts in regard to gaining knowledge and skills in Knowledge-Based Leadership because without a firm understanding of the terms, either advanced or “in-depth” understanding cannot be achieved.

For example, and as clearly demonstrated above, there is a stark difference between the words data, information, and knowledge. Many times we will hear companies, the media, or even government attempt to use these words interchangeably. This may not seem like a horrible mistake but it really can be from a technical point of view.

If we break these terms down even further, we see that data is always correct but information can be inaccurate. Meanwhile, knowledge is basically a personal understanding of either. An example of this might be that I am a Celtic male. This would be “data”. However, someone’s file might have me listed as either Irish or Welch. This would be “information”, and inaccurate information at that. True, both the Irish and Welch are generally Celtic, but I am Scottish. Their knowledge of the information is now in contrast to the actual data.

The point is that, having a better handle on the terms helps you better appreciate and refine what you may be exposed to or even asking for. This creates a substantial amount of value when considering the long term implications of a process. Essentially, you may force yourself to be more accurate or selective in regard to “data versus the information”, which will ultimately aid in a better outcome when you approach your decision making.

I believe that these fundamental understandings in regard to knowledge and skills in Knowledge-Based Leadership will be of great value to anyone. You could think about it as follows: if knowledge is power, then information is the sword, and data is the hand that wields it. Still, all the power in the world is useless if you do not know how to use it. This is where tribal knowledge, Knowledge Management, and Knowledge-Based Decision-Making come into play.

Tribal Knowledge is both an asset and a hindrance depending on which side of the knowledge fence you find yourself. The Free Masons are a great example of Tribal Knowledge. They have insider information that others in or out of their peer group do not have. Even within their organization, certain levels are allowed to have certain knowledge while other levels are not.

The Masons have done a fairly decent job of capturing, selectively distributing, using and even retaining knowledge and information about various topics. As you can see, their Knowledge Management skills are exceptional as they still find themselves in the center of many controversies and conspiracy theories due to a lack of information from those outside of their group. Yet, due to their effective use of Tribal Knowledge, many can only speculate on the inner workings of the organization.

Finally, in order to effectively select the logical choice in any given situation, you must first have a strong handle on the data and information provided so as to develop the necessary logical context. Someone’s experience, previous judgments, data, or details in a particular situation will be key in making a sound, knowledge based decision. Without one of these, the results of such a decision could be catastrophic.

We could use the medical field as a great example of this point. Say a patient went to a new doctor for a localized infection on their skin. The doctor confidently evaluated the patient because this was a very common issue in the area. The doctor’s experience, previous judgments and exposures all led him to believe that a particular antibiotic was the best course of action to take. The doctor saw that the patient did not have any known allergies, so the doctor wrote a prescription and sent the patient on their way. Within weeks, the patient was dead.

Critical data was missed or perhaps overlooked by the doctor. This patient was without an appendix and this data was not included in the analysis, diagnosis, or prescription. This was a critical mistake that ultimately ended the life of the patient. The physician made the mistake because of a lack of data, hence the Knowledge Based Decision was flawed before it was made. The patient did not have the ability to repopulate their intestinal tract with necessary bacteria normally found in the appendix. The antibiotic was too strong and a topical antibiotic would have been a better choice that ultimately would have saved the patient from death.

While just an example, the point remains. I suppose the point is that the root of Knowledge-Based Decision-Making is knowledge itself. True knowledge is hindered or even unachievable without accurate information derived from necessary data.  Having a stronger handle on the terms and definitions helps us to establish a better foundation in which to build our knowledge upon, which ultimately aids in, or even solidifies the overall structure of our decision making.

David Robertson

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