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Wednesday, May 19, 2004

On Definition

Many in Knowledge Management (KM) prefer to avoid defining its meaning. Their view is that definition is a sterile, time wasting pastime contributing little or nothing to the real work of KM. My view is different. It is that definition is an important preliminary step on the road to specifying one's cognitive map of knowledge processing and KM, and, ultimately, to developing quality models useful for developing KM solutions. I also think that arguments over definition are not fruitless arguments, but important exchanges about what is a good starting point for developing a cognitive map of KM. The purpose of a definition is not to provide necessary and sufficient conditions for its use. Instead, its purpose is to answer a question like: “What do you mean by Knowledge Management?” with a short, incomplete answer that:
  • allows the questioner to infer something more of the cognitive map (or conceptual map, or semantic network) of the target of the question; and
  • facilitates the beginning of further communication, and perhaps learning relative to that cognitive map.

Figure 1 illustrates the idea of a cognitive map. Nodes represent concepts. Edges are relationships. Single headed arrows are asymmetric relationships. Double-headed arrows are bi-directional associations. Edges may be weighted between 0 and 1.00, or, alternatively, weighted with words such as “few,” “more,” “somewhat, and signed (+, -) for increase or decrease in the target node following a change in the source node. Since qualitative concepts can be represented in a cognitive map, it should be clear that the idea can be used to represent fuzzy relationships, as well as logically crisp ones. The cognitive map idea is therefore not limited to mathematical or precise logical relationships but can also accommodate less exacting formulations of relations between concepts.

Figure 7.1 A Cognitive Map

The light yellow ellipse highlights the area of definition. The gold ellipse does the same for specification. The orange ellipse the same for a measurement model. The pink area represents the full model. The green arrow represents a feedback relationship. Measures are experiential concepts. Abstractions are what we measure. The abstraction/measure boundary is crossed by measurement rules. A pattern of measurement rules, abstract relationships and associations among measures defines a measurement model. Keeping the complex and comprehensive pattern of the whole cognitive map in mind, and the small area represented by the definition, I will characterize the definition as the "elevator speech" (the 30 second expression of the idea, See Geoffrey Moore, Crossing the Chasm, pp. 159-162) representing, however imperfectly, the cognitive map. That is, when communicating with others about any term. You can:
  • Refuse to explain it;
  • Define it;
  • Specify it; or
  • Construct a cognitive map of it.

Which would you rather do in response to a basic question from someone either at the beginning of a conversation or at a briefing? Do nothing? Give the “elevator speech?” Give the five-minute overview? Or give the whole briefing? And if there's disagreement over a specific definition there are a number of good reasons why that might be the case, other than mere love of philosophical disputation.
  • First, The definition may not provide enough of the definer’s cognitive map to evaluate their statements using the concept.
  • Second, the definition may not distinguish the concept from other concepts.
  • Third, the definition may redefine the term beyond common usage in a manner that promotes confusion in communication. (This is a frequent occurrence due to the desire of communicators to acquire the "halo effect" of certain terms for their frequently different concepts.)
  • Fourth, those disagreeing may forecast that bad model development will result (wasted time and effort) from the starting place for model construction provided by a particular definition. And
  • Fifth, the "definition" may be clearly be false.
So, once again, why bother to define? To save time in responding to a questioner, to create a basis for further communication with others, and last, to specify a cost-effective starting place for further specification, measurement, and modeling.

(Most of this post is excerpted from my
Enterprise Information Portals and Knowledge Management, Burlington, MA: KMCI Press/Butterworth-Heinemann, 2003, pp. 105-107)

4:21:55 PM    comment []

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