KA Dialog #1 – Part 3: Information Disasters vs. Knowledge Disasters.


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This post is the third in an open dialog with Ian Howell and Bob Batcheler of Newforma. Here are links to Part 1: Knowledge management is squishy and Part 2: PIM is like a bunch of boxes… for reference.

Ian and Batch,

Batch’s last post about “information boxes” got me thinking about “knowledge boxes.” And since you brought up using the idea of an information disaster to illustrate the importance of project information management, I thought I’d pick up on the thread and extend it to knowledge disasters.

Let’s start with two exercises. (If you aren’t Ian or Batch – you should play along at home as well.)

Exercise # 1 – Information Disaster

Clear your mind. Think about the “boxes” that you referenced in your last post. Specifically, visualize the contents of projects on servers or in the “CDs/DVDs in filing cabinets and paper drawings in boxes stored offsite by services like Iron Mountain” that you mentioned.

Now, imagine that your building burns down. What types of information artifacts would you lose?

Task – Write down at least 10 information artifacts you would lose. (Humor me here, you’ll see why at the end.)

Exercise #2 – Knowledge Disaster

Let’s try this again. Only this time, imagine that a couple senior folks in your company have just told you that they are leaving. Not only are they leaving, but they are setting up shop across the street. Not only are they leaving and setting up shop across the street, but their first client is actually one of your best clients and oh…by the way…they are taking about ten of your best people with them.

Now I hope this does not happen to you. But it happens all the time. It is how most companies get started.

When companies are confronted with the question “What is your company’s greatest asset?” the answer is some variant of “our people.”

So let’s try a second exercise…

Think about the scenario I described above. When those twelve people walk out the door to start their new company what types of “knowledge assets” would you lose? In other words, we’ve established that our people are our greatest assets, so what exactly is the impact of the disaster?

Task – Write down at least 10 knowledge assets that you would lose.

We don’t prepare for Knowledge Disasters like we prepare for Information Disasters.

Here’s an excerpt from Batch’s post last week:

This leads to an interesting potential thought exercise in promoting the value of project information and knowledge management in an AEC organization. I suggest you go back to the CIO in your story to ask, “What would be the impact of your firm losing all of the information associated with any one of your major projects over the past three years?” I suspect he would characterize that as a disaster, right? Then ask a follow-up question – “What would be the impact of being unable to find a key piece of information required to avoid a claim?” or “What would be the impact of hundreds of hours of skilled labor, from a project manager and IT support, required to find the information required to respond to a claim?” If he is honest with you, he will admit that the scenarios depicted in each of the follow-up questions is nearly as dangerous as the obvious disaster of outright data loss.

I don’t have to go back to the CIO in my story and ask those questions. I already know the answers and so do both of you. Of course he would agree that your scenario was a disaster and that the inability to discover data is nearly as dangerous.

Back to Exercise #1. I bet your list (you did write it down didn’t you?) looks something like this.


Sample project directory from Knowledge Architecture.

I believe we have a strong understanding about what information loss looks like because information artifacts are so quantifiable. The extent of our familiarity with the risks of poor information management procedures is evidenced by a robust,  information-centric disaster recovery industry.  Those risks are underscored by the amount of time and effort first put into disaster recovery planning on an annual basis.

At the same time, my observation is that companies don’t have an inventory of  knowledge assets written down. They don’t have  strategies to prevent losing knowledge assets in knowledge disaster scenarios like the one I illustrated in  in Exercise #2, people walking out the door. I had never heard the phrase “knowledge disaster” until I started working on this post. (Looks like “the Google” hasn’t either.)

Why is this? Why are we prepared for information disasters and not knowledge disasters?

Knowledge management is not squishy, it is simply more difficult than information management.

Knowledge management is more difficult than information management because it requires people to do something. Knowledge management is unlike information management in that we have to intentionally create, capture and share knowledge assets whereas information artifacts are the by-products of our daily work.

Now, I’m not saying that information management is easy. I most certainly understand the challenges that come along with the unimaginable volume of information architects and engineers generate annually. I think that project information management (PIM) tools such as Newforma Project center have made information management far less daunting.

But to put it quite simply…

Managing information artifacts is a challenge of abundance. Managing knowledge assets is a challenge of scarcity.

I want to close by picking up on the last line in your post from last week.

“…our shared belief (is) that AEC organizations must manage their project information effectively in order to have any hope of transforming that information into knowledge.”


I like the idea that there is hope for transforming information into knowledge.  Your comment implies that perhaps technology can aid with our “scarcity of knowledge assets” problem by doing some of the heavy lifting for us. 

Can Newforma Project Center help firms to transform information artifacts into knowledge assets? Could Newforma help firms to prevent knowledge disasters?

Looking forward to your next post. And happy unpacking.


Ian Howell is Newforma’s chief executive officer. He’s an architect by training, with practice experience in Australia and the United Kingdom. His AEC software industry experience includes positions with Autodesk, Citadon, Alias Research and Rucaps Australia. Among his contributions to the AEC software industry, Ian is a founder of the International Alliance for Interoperability, and currently serves on the board of direction for the buildingSMART Alliance.

Bob Batcheler is Newforma’s vice-president of industry marketing and product management. Bob’s career as a professional engineer includes time at Black & Veatch and Bechtel Power Corporation. His AEC technology background encompasses a variety of roles at Autodesk and Softdesk. Bob earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from Lehigh University, and qualified as a registered professional engineer in Maryland.

Posted: October 30th, 2009 | Filed under: General, Guests | Comments Off on KA Dialog #1 – Part 3: Information Disasters vs. Knowledge Disasters.

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