Emory Report
February 12, 2007
Volume 59, Number 19

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February 12, 2007
Knowledge from the bottom up

David Bray is a Ph.D. student at Emory and will be a Visiting Fellow and Rotary Ambassador later this year at Oxford University’s Internet Institute.

We live in interesting times. Never before has humanity created and had access to so much knowledge. Time Magazine’s recent recognition of “you” as the 2006 Person of the Year represents the accelerating trend where anyone can find, analyze, produce and remix various media on the Internet. For academia, the growth of new knowledge is exponential. In the year 1900, there were 9,000 scientific articles published. In 1950, there were 90,000 and by 2000 there were 900,000 scientific articles published.

It is becoming difficult to keep up with all this new knowledge. Entrusted with the responsibility of protecting their civilian populous and maintaining stability, national governments face tremendous challenges in addressing the increasing amount of knowledge. Workers comprising multiple government agencies must search through, prioritize and potentially act upon knowledge of both national opportunities and threats.

Unfortunately, the founders of our federal government may have included some organizational obstacles and redundancies intentionally. Preventing an individual from consolidating too much political power represented a significant concern, as published in The Federalist Papers. Both the fragmentation and slow pace of our system of government intentionally limit a political official from becoming synonymous to a monarch. Yet in an age of increasing amounts of knowledge, government fragmentation hurts more than helps.

Recall the major events of recent years – inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, faulty intelligence prior to the second Iraqi war in 2003, incorrect estimates of the Al-Qaeda threat prior to the 9/11 attacks. These failures all occurred because our system of government could not appropriately link the knowledge it had across multiple departments to take action. Repeat investigations by the U.S. General Accountability Office all report the same theme: more than sufficient information existed to mitigate these events, but the information was in a highly distributed and fragmented form across multiple departments and the White House.

Granted, the role of government is a large and onerous one. No other system exists with such a broad scope of duties to serve and protect us as citizens. For every government failure, multiple successes occur without making headlines. When our system of government works well, we all take it for granted. Government agencies confront a difficult task of determining truth from fiction, with limited (or potentially biased) sources of knowledge available.

I can attest to these difficulties. Starting in autumn of 2000, I accepted a role with the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — first as a fellow, later as IT chief of the bioterrorism program.

At 9 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I was to give a presentation to various government officials on how improvements in the information technology infrastructure of public health laboratories could aid national response to a bioterrorism event. The meeting never started. Instead, members of my program at the CDC were sent to an off-site command area when American Airlines Flight 11 hit the World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m.

The events that followed — to include the anthrax events of 2001, West Nile Virus, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, monkeypox and other disease outbreaks – all demonstrated to me that our government faces significant obstacles in effectively connecting the dots of knowledge held in the minds of numerous individuals working for different organizational units. Not only is the challenge to discern truth from fiction, but also to put all the pieces of knowledge together to form a complete picture. In this age of knowledge-overload, no one individual harbors sufficient knowledge to either mitigate negative outcomes or capitalize on positive opportunities. Knowledge exchanges in these government agencies must transcend physical group proximity, social networks and the institutions themselves.

Presently, I am a Ph.D. student at the Goizueta Business School intent on researching this very problem. One might pause and wonder what a public health person with a national security background in government information systems is doing in a business school, but for me the answer is clear: it is about making knowledge exchanges within and across organizations more effective. There is a significant correlation between globalization efforts and increasing knowledge velocity, volume, volatility and veracity concerns. Human societies, economies, and civil infrastructures are increasingly interdependent and complex.

For 21st-century organizations confronting knowledge-overload and turbulent environments, Dr. Benn Konsynski, my dissertation advisor, and I propose a novel approach. Instead of attempting the traditional “top-down” approach to management, our research espouses a “bottom-up” approach to cultivating individual insights. Recall the events of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina: no one individual harbored sufficient knowledge to mitigate these events. Such realities will occur with increasing frequency for employees of either government agencies or private entities. To assemble the entire puzzle, knowledge exchanges must occur among multiple individuals in different organizational units and institutions without prompting from the “top,” but instead must be motivated at the grass roots by collaboration-fostering incentives, values and trust-relationships.

Benn and I dub this idea “knowledge ecosystems.” Related research includes augmenting the power of group cognition through computers and allowing human individuals to transcend limitations of location and their own bodies through “virtual worlds” existing only in cyberspace-produced realities. Early examples of these concepts already exist, to include the adoption of a Wikipedia-like approach to intelligence gathering within the CIA and the tremendous success of open-source software efforts such as Linux. Additional examples include a start-up called Sermo.com, focused on encouraging the exchange of insights among physicians nationally and the millions of individuals inhabiting the virtual world Second Life.

In his “Meditation XVII” John Donne wrote, “no man is an island.” For our era of increasing knowledge intensity, “no one’s knowledge should be an island.” We all have insights and ideas to exchange, with the potential of making private and public institutions more agile and robust. By empowering individuals, stepping away from “top-down” management, and focusing instead on “bottom-up” cultivation of ideas and knowledge, future organizations can effectively address the difficulties of knowledge-overload and turbulent world environments.

We live in exciting times indeed.