Intelligence Versus Knowledge

(another late night epiphany brought to you by father time and beer)

I was reading a post on the future of activity streams at SocialCast’s blog, and I read a sentence that caught my attention.  Somewhere near the middle of the post, Monica Wilkinson (the author) is discussing how she uses activity streams and what she likes about them, and says:

I have a deep appreciation for the power of Activity Streams as a mechanism to foster collective intelligence and productivity. I believe that a company that has good guidelines, good people, good tools and effective monitoring does not need central approvers.

I agree with that statement in certain cases but one word caught my attention: intelligence as opposed to knowledge.

For a very long time maintained two beliefs:

  1. collaboration relies on sharing knowledge, and
  2. activity streams make it impossible to generate and support knowledge due to their dynamic nature.

I think of intelligence as real-time use of information, knowledge as stored use of information.  One cannot recall intelligence, but can search and recall (and reuse – key point) knowledge.  This has been one of the most ardent protests I had against activity streams (including Twitter, Chatter, Yammer, and – yes – SocialCast): they are incapable of generating knowledge and therefore not suitable for collaborative enterprises.  They do provide information, intelligence as Ms Wilkinson sagely points, but without the proper conversion to knowledge, it is irrelevant.

In my world knowledge is something you seek and aim for. Experiences and  interactions with customers demand knowledge in several ways: the same response being made available time after time, knowing what the answer to any question is immediately, delivering the value of a proper answer and more.  Knowledge is managed, intelligence is used – over time, knowledge is far more valuable.  I think of intelligence as necessary in the world, but not as valuable as knowledge (or maybe, having a different value – yeah, that’s better).

Here is my question to you: do you know what your organization  needs? Is it knowledge or intelligence?  How are you delivering that?

The answer, my friend, is floating in the stream…

(note: I made two changes to this post after original publication.  I removed the sentence that read “Did I finally get confirmation of my belief? Is it true that activity streams cannot generate knowledge?” since, other than gloating about how smart I am it did little for the post and distracted from the main question of intelligence vs knowledge.  I also changed the first sentence following the quote, which originally read “I agree with that statement, emphatically I must add, but one word caught my attention: intelligence as opposed to knowledge.” since deeper thoughts about the statement made me realized it only applies to certain cases and situations, not across the board).

11 Replies to “Intelligence Versus Knowledge”

  1. Hi Esteban,
    I tend to agree with you in that knowledge is a codified kind of exchange that can be leveraged later on for decision making and operative work and thus more important than intelligence per se.

    I also believe than in our social world, as John Hagel strongly states in his the Power of Pull, knowledge stock are becoming obsolete pretty immediately while knowledge flow is what really matters. In other terms knowledge is always fluid and when it solidify.. well it quickly dies. Knowledge is also more among people (read in the network) and less inside people (in the head).

    If constantly being in the flow of knowledge is so important, then activity streams could be considered the medium that lets fresh information emerge, reaching people and updating the old stocks. Streams create awareness, context, serendipity that you need both to discover and to use knowledge.

    At the end, I still agree with you that to be easily consumed, information needs to get solid (stock) even if only for a short while and activity streams are not helping with this.


  2. It’s not what you know, but who you know that knows – network value. It’d be more interesting to get metadata derived from these activity stream ‘conversations’ that can then be used to help you find those that have a high probability in helping you get your task at hand done.

    Thus rather than looking at the activity stream as a source of intelligence or knowledge, it can be seen as a connection mechanism that serves as just another resource to be mined for tagging expertise, skills, network reach etc.



  3. Esteban,

    Good post, and important to understand. I have been thinking on the edges of this topic regarding some work I am doing. I hope to share it soon, but I am non-committal. I could be way off, but here is how I think about it:

    Information = ‘know-what’
    Knowledge = ‘know-how’
    Intelligence = ‘know-why’ and ‘know-when’

    From my over simplistic breakdown, I hope it is clear that (my thought is) they build on each other and that intelligence requires information and knowledge, but the converse is not true. There is a bit of an overlap, as an individual may be able to share intelligence, but it is given as knowledge.

    I am not convinced that activity streams can “foster shared intelligence”, mainly because they cannot tell me ‘why’ and ‘when’.

    Fun topic – drink some more beer and share another.



  4. A topic well worth exploring, Esteban and your points about differentiation between the various terms are great. Something KM practitioners have been struggling with / working on mastering for decades.

    Whilst I realize your post was in reaction to Monica’s comment, I do think the perceived value of activity streams often gets overblown to do what wasn’t intended. None of the tools you mentioned above really signed up to become full fledged knowledge management systems and my personal opinion is that we over complicate the issue when we start to associate these tools with adjacent information management objectives. They are instrumental in unlocking whats in my head, in context, when someone needs it. ‘Collective’ Intelligence to me is not a step up on knowledge management. Its about vetting out initial ideas, work in progress thinking, event trigger and response, almost-complete-analysis, etc. But most important, and this is where it differs from knowledge management, in the contextual of what I’m doing, now. KM to date has been based on library science. Thats also the reason why activity stream or micro-blogging without context so often results as a nice to have utility with bell curve esq participation patterns, vs. a default workspace.


  5. I may have a different interpretation here of “collective intelligence” when I read that sentence.

    The discussions here seem to focus mostly on the output (data, information, knowledge, “intelligence” reports) rather than the act (the processing needed to get the output). I think it comes from our cursory knowledge of the public and private Intelligence bureaus who issue “intelligence reports” which colloquially become “intel” meaning the output in the report. What is often missed is the overall methods of gathering and processing all the data/information/knowledge into the resultant ‘intel’.

    These methods of processing whether done individually by analysts, or in social groups as “collective intelligence” are the real long-term winners. The data/content will change over time, but those organizations who know, apply, develop and train the methods of collective intelligence, are the ones who are developing their operational excellence.

    Are activity streams a mechanism to foster collective intelligence? Perhaps, but the activity stream (as a tool) is likely no better than a hammer all by itself will foster the construction of a building. It is a tool that includes new dimensions and sources of content/data/knowledge and routes them as people see fit, but by itself is just a tool. It may help you filter some that information but in the end it does not process all that content. It still needs direction of what to do with respect to the overall goal, how to use it, and when and where to apply it. That is collective intelligence.

    So in a way, I don’t disagree with the statement but I think its inadequate by itself.


  6. Learning a lot, while reading your post Esteban, and the comments.

    In my view, the most important way activity streams add value is that they, (not by themselves of course), contribute to the development of social capital (inclination to do things for others within and among networks).

    (Emotional) connections develop intrinsic motivation and enjoyment in taking part in the learning process that leads to building knowledge.
    Also they enable awareness of the wider context as it is being said. This awareness develops individual and collective intelligence in terms of a faster, more agile, capability of actions and decision making.

    And of course activity streams, have to be part of a much wider design.


  7. Wondering if the activity stream allows each one of us to share our knowledge or for it to be tapped into, and once tapped into/shared has the potential to become ‘intelligence’ when used to one’s benefit or to remain as ‘knowledge’ when not used (unfulfilled state perhaps).

    As for the distinction between knowledge and information within activity streams, perhaps the activity stream is the information repository, which when we tap into it or it is shared when we need it, has the potential to be turned into knowledge (and if we use it, it becomes intelligence).

    Perhaps, as is more than likely, I’m just confusing myself with semantic triflings, but I think definitions of words are also changing and we each carry around different meanings of words.

    All I know is that when my washing machine broke down, I tapped into Google and Twitter, found the information I needed, and with that knowledge bought a replacement part and subsequently found a YouTube video showing me how to change the rubber ring, and using my intelligence actually managed to then do it myself.


  8. Knowledge=People+Information

    Agreed, knowledge creation is indeed an efficiency cycle, see slide 5

    I do not get the point why activity streams do not allow knowledge creation? So, I disagree! In fact, only people own knowledge, as soon as it it shared it just turns into information (and someone knowing more about it). If others want to take it in (create knwoledge) they have to make sense. Microblogging has its clear values for sense-making and re-finding, so supports more efficient knowledge creation cycles. An example is e.g. finding the true expert faster or getting an expert to reply faster.


  9. Hi Esteban

    Another interesting post. And some great comments and links too (thanks Rawn and Jörg).

    Knowledge management aficionados have been arguing about knowledge, intelligence and a lot more besides for decades. I don’t intend to add to the discussions here. Instead, I want to pick up on something else that Monica said in her excerpt, which has much more importance than debating the meaning of two particular words.

    Monica said…
    Quote… “I believe that a company that has good guidelines, good people, good tools and effective monitoring does not need central approvers.“ …Unquote.

    She seems to be suggesting that as long as good people know how to behave, and have access to ALL information, that they should be left to ‘self-organise’ their work. And furthermore, that other people monitoring their work should be responsible for picking up anything that goes off-track and bringing it back. This sounds like a recipe for under-performance in most organisations. In fact, her description of Facebook sounds more like a Kindergarten than a ‘hot-team’, let alone a High Performance Work Organisation.

    With suitable filtering, activity streams have huge potential to provide timely knowledge about things, events and people that can be applied intelligently to improve how work is done. Providing that you can avoid the irrelevant information fire-hose effect. But the whole notion of self-organising an organisation on a corporate scale is – in my 20 years experience studying and developing organisations – simply pie-in-the-sky. It might work for a late-stage startup like Facebook, but practice and theory both suggest it won’t when you cross the Dunbar-inspired 100-250 staff threshold, let alone become the size of IBM.

    Knowledge may be power, but even power needs to be wielded within a framework of planned activities intended to move the organisation forward. And that framework is provided by the organisation itself, its structures and its goals.

    Graham Hill
    Customer-centric Innovator


  10. You know Esteban, I actually blogged about this recently on my blog. Your post has really provided me with some food for thought, I think that you have made some important points. In fact, I just wish I’d read it before posting my own article.

    Cheers 8-), cars2scrap.


  11. Great questions, Esteban, and thought provoking as always. I’m a strong believer that companies need activity streams AND knowledge. Both derive from a question that someone seeks an answer to.

    We can search Google or ask our communities for answers but how do we trust the responses? In Guy’s scenario of seeking help for his washing machine problem I’ll lay odds that he trusted the answer that was verified by the company concerned, which enabled him to fix his problem. The activity stream is perfect for quick thoughts, guidance on where to find or sharing content but not if the content itself isn’t trusted.

    This is where knowledge is king.Think of it like this –
    – someone asks a question> answer is untested = not validated
    > answer is tested and given thumbs up = validated by customer
    > answer is endorsed by company = validated by company – trusted
    > answer is from company knowledge base = trusted

    Of course for this to be truly useful then companies need to be engaged with their customer base, collaborating with and learning from their communities and colleagues and enabling content in their knowledge bases to be fluid, up to date and timely. Library science has never worked for knowledge management in customer support. Too rigid, too inflexible and no room for feedback and co-creation. A good knowledge team is an enabler of content creation, using activity streams as a rich source of understanding what content is needed to support the base.


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