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    The Power of Metaphor

    In trying to understand and explain complex topics, it’s often helpful to use metaphors. Indeed, science, technology and really all of human language is based on symbols and metaphors. Rarely do we explain things or tell stories without invoking comparisons of new to old or tangible to intangible.

    The problem in communicating arises from having people with different backgrounds, knowledge and experience levels trying to convey concepts that are only meaningful based on their respective “knowledge contexts”. If we put IT people in a room with front line business people, they might use the same terms to explain an idea, but end up meaning very different things. We’ve all been in those types of meetings.

    In using a metaphor that we “ascribe” meaning to, we are not making assumptions about a person’s knowledge and experience. We are defining things and processes as we go along. The result is a more powerful common understanding. The metaphors we’ll use to describe mapping of knowledge processes will relate knowledge to physical landscapes. Think of the business environment as a land that we need to navigate. We travel from place to place along roads to gather meaning and survey the land – depending on where we stand, our outlook and viewpoint will be very different. If we are standing on a hill, the vantage point will allow a broad sweeping vista (the CEO looking at larger processes and strategies), we may be down in a valley (perhaps the front lines of the business) and not see what is over the next hill, but see things not visible from the hilltop.

    Information needs on an intranet are very different depending on:

    1. Where you are beginning in the knowledge landscape. (Your job role or viewpoint)
    2. Where you are traveling in the landscape. (What you are trying to accomplish at the moment, your current tasks)

    A CFO has a different perspective from a manufacturing engineer. They may be viewing the same pool of knowledge, but with a very different set of needs and context for action. A great deal of work on the use of landscape metaphors in business environments has been done by a number of authors. See the end of this Articles for additional reading.

    Meanwhile, let’s extend our metaphor to describe information flows on an intranet.

    Knowledge is like Water

    An Intranet is like an irrigation system that waters the crops in the field. Through a series of canals, pumps, pipes and sprinklers water (content) is distributed according to the needs of the different crops. The system works if we can see the crop grow. The contribution of an Intranet may not be as easily measurable, but improvements in the efficiency and effectiveness of the organization are nevertheless the targeted outcomes.

    An irrigation system without water is as useless as an Intranet without relevant content. Some sources of content are within the organization, but others lie outside the boundaries of the organization. Content relevance points to the source as well as to the ultimate receiver (from the well to the plant). The wells of relevant content are somewhere in the market place (competitive information, emerging technology trends, changing customer needs, etc.). From these wells content moves through the canals of organizational strategy and tactics to the pipelines of the different business units until a sprinkler makes the content relevant to the person performing a particular task. The route from source to task is often long and difficult to manage.

    An intranet is the vehicle for knowledge distribution. Managing the flow of knowledge so that it is usable in multiple contexts and for a varied audience is the challenge of an intranet professional.

    The Challenges

    We see two significant difficulties in getting determining the flow of relevant knowledge.

    1. Finding trustworthy sources for establishing what content is and is not relevant. Examining corporate strategy statements does not necessarily provide dependable answers. In almost all organizations there is a gap between what is officially stated as a goal and what actually goes on. That helps the organization be flexible, but it makes the IP's work more difficult.
    2. Integrating corporate and individual knowledge needs. Asking individuals to describe their particular needs may not yield information that is relevant to the goals of the organization. This is not unusual because it is a rare organization where corporate, functional and individual goals are perfectly aligned.

    To overcome these difficulties we involve all the stakeholders and give them a chance to actively participate in the design of their Intranet. For our work sessions we invite the people who collectively have all the knowledge necessary to determine the mission critical knowledge flows of the organization. We guide them through a knowledge mapping process.

    Knowledge mapping is both a method and a tool for helping knowledge providers and knowledge users jointly determine and visualize the flows of organizationally relevant knowledge from source to destination. In a work session for the Volvo Car Corporation we brought together senior corporate managers, plant managers, department supervisors and shop floor workers. In the course of 3 days they mapped all the key information flows from corporate strategy to the information needed by an assembly team to put together a car.

    The Many Meanings of Mapping

    Today the word "mapping" is used to describe many different graphic forms of representing data. We use the word in its original sense where a map means a representation of a geographic area. One of the useful characteristics of a geographic map is that it can be drawn at different scales. A world map is sufficiently detailed to find a country. On somewhat larger scale map of a country we find enough detail to find a particular city. On a street map of the city we can find the museum we are looking for. And when we buy our ticket we are given a very detailed map showing each room of the museum and the exhibits in them. With only four maps we can place a room in the context of the world.

    We can map flows of an individual's knowledge needs, the needs of a department and the strategic needs of the company that result from its interaction with market forces. But not only can we make each of these needs clearly visible, we can also see how they are aligned (or not!) to create synergies for all parties in the process.

    In knowledge mapping sessions stakeholders build geographic maps that show a landscape made up of islands and structures and the roads and bridges that connect them. An island can represent a geographic area, a business unit, a corporate division, market segment, customer audience, business process, or functional area. Structures on the islands represent sub processes or workgroups that comprise the larger structure or unit. Roads and bridges represent the flows of knowledge and information between groups, processes, divisions, etc. There may be unofficial processes represented by underground pipes. Sharks in the water can be competitive threats. A road can lead to a swamp where information is lost or a forest where things take forever to process.

    Mapping Revelations 

    The people participating in a mapping session reveal more about the inner workings of the organization in a shorter time through this process. There are a number of reasons why this happens.

    1. It’s easier to blame an inanimate object than a group or person for a problem (“there’s a swamp between support and sales” rather than “support never responds to sales” )
    2. Metaphors convey much richer meaning than simple diagrams or one dimensional statements (representing the sales group on an island without a bridge to product development; with a forest between sales and the marketing group; with competitive threats attacking from the air, etc. - rather than simply stating that sales does not communicate well to other groups and will be attacked by the competition)
    3. Images convey stories, stories convey knowledge (it is easier and faster to hear and understand a story around a map than it is to read and understand a fifty page report. Besides, most people never read reports in enough detail to truly get all of the meaning intended by the author.)
    4. The creativity released in a map building session is energizing to a point that must be seen to be appreciated. People have fun in the process, become engaged, become excited about the process and the insights that they are quickly gaining.
    5. The process is active, tangible and tactile. People love to do things, rather than sit passively. Mapping sessions are broken up so that no more than 3 or 4 people build a map of a given process from a given perspective.
    6. The final maps represent an agreed view of the knowledge flows and knowledge content that is needed at each level in the organization. In only 2 or 3 days the groups provide a reliable picture of what the Intranet needs to achieve.

    Their input is trustworthy because:

    1. The link between strategically important knowledge and individual task performance knowledge is clearly indicated and
    2. The knowledge flows on their maps directly support the way work is actually performed in the organization.

    How it Works 

    The first task for the participants (again, working in groups of 3 – 4) is to build a map showing the current knowledge flows in the organization and the problems these encounter. The groups then present their maps. Although maps may highlight different aspects of the current situation the participants quickly reach agreement on what the current situation is. The group's next task is to show knowledge flow scenarios for the future. Again the group divides into sub groups. One or two sub groups may work on a six month time horizon, while other groups maps the needs one or two years out. These scenarios are then presented to the whole group and discussed until for each time horizon there is an agreed scenario. At this point the group has three maps - a current situation map, a short-term future map, and a longer-term future map. If we see the three maps as frames in a movie it is not too difficult to fill in the frames in-between. This "movie" helps us understand not only the current knowledge needs in the organization, but also the changes that may occur over time. Knowing this helps us build a flexible Intranet architecture that will be prepared to accommodate changing knowledge needs.

    For our knowledge mapping work sessions we use the SeeMap® tool. This system derives from work done in Geneva, Switzerland over a period of approximately 20 years. SeeMap® materials consist of a plastic background sheet that is put on a flipchart. A box with peel-off icons contains symbols and metaphors necessary to build a map. There are pictures of islands and houses, roads and bridges, people at a desk and people running, swamps where information disappears and snow storms that make some roads treacherous to pass. Write-on symbols allow map builders to label the houses and write down the information and knowledge that passes along the roads from house to house. A number of consulting groups use similar tools. For example, the Delphi Group in Boston has a software package that they developed for knowledge mapping. Graphics programs and graphic designers can also be enlisted to build knowledge maps. The advantage of one system over another depends on the skill of session facilitators and the degree of comfort with the tool itself.

    Success Factors

    Knowledge mapping comes in many shapes and flavors. The keys to success include:

    1. Correct mix of stakeholders in the session (front line users, technical and non technical people, even customers or clients)
    2. Skill of facilitator (create a high level of trust, encourage balanced participation, draw out opposing viewpoints, encourage risk taking)
    3. Effective translation of maps into navigation schemes, role based information presentation, taxonomic and meta data structures, and content management mechanisms

    Knowledge mapping is a tool for divining the complex needs and inter relationships of multiple audiences in an organization. The process gets groups with various backgrounds and contexts communicating about commonalties and structures that facilitate an improved organizational “information metabolism”. Mapping should be an ongoing process since knowledge landscapes are continually shifting and evolving. The process of mapping can help create a common vision and common viewpoint on challenges inherent in managing intranets and making the information they contain more timely and useful. Now that you’ve mapped what you need, you can just go build it....

    Seth Earley
    Seth Earley
    Seth Earley is the Founder & CEO of Earley Information Science and the author of the award winning book The AI-Powered Enterprise: Harness the Power of Ontologies to Make Your Business Smarter, Faster, and More Profitable. An expert with 20+ years experience in Knowledge Strategy, Data and Information Architecture, Search-based Applications and Information Findability solutions. He has worked with a diverse roster of Fortune 1000 companies helping them to achieve higher levels of operating performance.

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