Data, Information and Knowledge: Different Words for the Same Concept?
We hear the words "data," "information," and "knowledge" quite often being used as if they were synonymous; but are they actually the same thing? If not, what are the differences?
The contribution of IT providers has perhaps been unmatched in its potential to add to our confusion over the distinction between data and information. Examples can be found in almost any specialized IT publication, conversations with IT company representatives, and even in public speeches by IT "gurus." For example, a senior vice-president of a large software development company was one of the keynote speakers of a recent information systems conference. He referred to the advantages of a well-known commercial group support system in the following terms:
"... information overflow can be considerably reduced ... for example, a few weeks ago I prepared a 2 megabyte report and sent it via electronic mail to ten people. Each of these ten people forwarded a copy of the report to about ten other people ... as a result, my report had generated a flow of 200 megabytes of information in the net-work, in less than four days ..."
In the example above, the speaker was referring to data, which can be measured in megabytes, as synonymous with information. This can often be misleading because large sets of data may have very low information content, depending on how well the data receiver is prepared to make sense of it. Mistakenly identifying data as information is as commonplace as confusing knowledge with information.
It is curious that the confusion over what information and knowledge are has been nurtured by some of those people who are widely recognized as among the forerunners of the study of information and knowledge and their impact on organizations and society. For example, one of the most highly regarded management consultants and researchers, Peter Drucker (1989, pp. 207-208), describes the emergence of the information-based organization in the following terms:
... the business, and increasingly the government agency as well, will be knowledge-based, composed
largely of specialists who direct and discipline their own performance through organized feedback from colleagues and customers. It will be an information-based organization ... Today's typical organization, in which knowledge tends to be concentrated in service staffs perched rather insecurely between top management and the operating people, will likely be labeled a phase, an attempt to infuse knowledge from the top rather than obtain information from below [our emphasis].
If information and knowledge were the same thing, why use two words when just one would suffice? Even though information and knowledge mean different things to different people, most people use them in different senses. The main reason these two words are often used interchangeably is exactly because there is no agreement over their meaning.
But, why should we worry about the different nature of data, information, and knowledge? One reason is because an ocean of data may contain only a small amount of information that is of any value to us, and sifting through this ocean of data may be severely time-consuming (Goldratt, 1991). But there are other reasons, and they relate to our understanding of the world.
The world is not only what we perceive it to be through our senses; it is a combination of these perceptions and what is stored in our body, mostly in our brain in the form of neural networks (Callatay, 1986; Dozier, 1992). We can develop our neural networks by interacting with matter and living organisms, notably other human beings. However, in order to interact with other human beings, we need to externalize what is stored in our neural networks by means of a code. Other human beings must understand this code so communication takes place.
If data and information are the same, how can the content of one E-mail message be interpreted differently by various recipients? Let us suppose that an E-mail message, written in Spanish (a specific code), is sent to two different recipients. While one of the recipients can read Spanish very well, the other cannot. In this example, the message takes up the same disk space (say, 3.6 kilobytes) on the computers of each of the recipients, which is a measure of the amount of data related to the message. Yet, its information content is much higher for the recipient who can read Spanish than for the recipient who cannot.
If data and information are the same, then they should not yield different "amounts" when measured for the same object (in this case, the E-mail message in Spanish). It is important to stress that different terms could have been used in this discussion; for example, instead of "data" and "information," "alpha-stractum" and "capta" could be used. The more commonly used terms data and information are used in this report because we believe that the sense in which we have just used these two terms is their most "usual" sense.
The distinction between knowledge and information is a bit more abstract than the distinction between information and data. In order to make this distinction as clear as possible, consider the following dialogue between a doctor (D) and her patient (P):
D: So, what brings you here
P: I don't know doctor, I've been
feeling a bit strange in the last couple of weeks.
D: What do you mean by "strange"?
P: Burning eyes, stuffy nose ... and these things go and
come several times a day.
D: Any headaches or
P: No, not at all.
D: Well, we'll run a checkup on you, but I think you probably have an allergy.
The patient was feeling the symptoms of what could be an allergy and, therefore, went to see the doctor, an expert who likely knows more about medicine than the patient. The patient described the symptoms, and the doctor made the tentative diagnosis, "... you probably have an allergy." Is what the patient told the doctor enough for anyone without any medical expertise to come up with the same tentative diagnosis? Well, if this were the case, very few people would agree to pay doctors for consultations. Doctors possess more of something the patients do not have, something typically referred to as knowledge, in the specific field of medicine.
Is the nature of the expert knowledge possessed (by the doctor, in this case) the same as that of the perception of symptoms experienced by the patient? No, for the simple reason that expert knowledge can be used to generate conclusions based on the description of symptoms. This is something that the descriptions alone cannot do. Therefore, the natures of descriptions and expert knowledge are different, and it can be shown that neither of them is the same as the nature of data. This also suggests that descriptions are instances of something unique - referred to here as information.