Aha moments…thanks to the metaphor!

In the field of knowledge management, complexity and changing organizations, it’s easy to have conversations where one person is talking past another.  Have you ever stood there wondering what a colleague is trying to explain while they seem really sure of what they are saying?

One way to help clarify concepts is to use metaphors.  Yesterday on Twitter (via @NancyWhite) I saw this example that visually illustrates the difference between data, information, presentation and knowledge.  A picture is worth a thousand words in this case, particularly for people working with knowledge!

Another great metaphor for understanding tacit knowledge is the iceberg metaphor from Anecdote.com (blogged in 2007, fantastic description).  They visualize knowledge as above and below the waterline.  Most of the mass of an iceberg lies below.

Lastly, a simple way to explain complexity is provided on page 9 of the highly recommended book Getting to Maybe.  They use metaphors such as baking cakes, launching rockets and raising children.  Thanks to Gary Ockenden for sharing that one with me a few years ago.

Do you have metaphors you use to explain concepts related to knowledge or complexity?  Please share!


Filed under knowledge management, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Aha moments…thanks to the metaphor!

  1. That’s funny, I have been using a very similar metaphor to explain the difference between data, information and knowledge: preparing a tiramisu cake.
    Imagine you want to prepare a tiramisu, you might not know how to do it but don’t worry, you are in good hands, I’m an expert. I give you my recipe, which I have learned from a very close friend of mine years ago and which has passed many a test with flying colours.
    First of all you need to get the ingredients. The ingredients list, with the right amounts, is DATA. Then you need step-by-step instructions on how to put the ingredients together, that’s INFORMATION.
    Now, with data and information available, will you able to prepare a yummy tiramisu? Well, you don’t know until you try. If you are lucky, your first tiramisu might be a success. That’s what happened to me the very first time, and I was so damn proud of myself. But the second time around, it just didn’t work out, the cream was an inconsistent mess that just refused to behave. And yet I had used the same ingredients and followed the same instructions. What I didn’t know at that time (and it took me a while to learn) was that when you prepare an eggs-based cream (so it goes for any cheesecake), all ingredients must be at room temperature. If the mascarpone cheese is too cold, the cream will curdle, and there is nothing you can do to recuperate it (well, maybe if you have a blender around… but let’s not get there).
    So that last paragraph there is KNOWLEDGE: it is the result of practice and experience. It is about facing the exception to the the process (the recipe says A should happen, but I find B) and finding a solution around it. It is about sharing experiences with more knowledgeable people and learning through it.
    One interesting lesson from the tiramisu metaphor is that you can’t just write a recipe which contemplates ALL possible scenarios. If you had to explain the termo-dynamics of cream whipping, or the differences in temperature that you might find in an average convection oven, or how to recognize a fresh egg from a not so fresh egg etc., your recipe would probably look like a 500-page book. And the problem here is not that nobody would ever read it. Nope, the problem is that there would still be exceptions that the book could give no answer to!

  2. Michelle Laurie

    Thanks Giuseppe – Makes me also think about how metaphors are cultural though I am not Italian and still appreciate tiramisu (metaphor or otherwise) 🙂

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