A reason for BI failure: knowledge requires a knower

What can explain business intelligence’s poor adoption rate? Are tools not easy to use? Or is there a deeper reason?

A book from 2000, The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, suggests that BI designers have neglected basic human needs. Jack Vinson, of Knowledge Jolt with Jack fame, has just posted a worthwhile review that sent me scurrying over to Amazon.

Failure begins early for many new, supposedly revolutionary information systems. Designers “assume that the way people operate with respect to information has to do with only the information. … But there is a social life that revolves around the information that is much harder to capture and codify,” Vinson writes. “We look to verbal and physical queues for validity of what someone is saying. Our business processes have much more than just the inputs and outputs.”

Jumping forward but on the same thread:

… in the essay on reengineering … the authors describe how all the social life around business process is downplayed and often treated as waste. Businesses were re-engineered to remove much of the social lubricant that helped business flow. The essay on knowledge management was hopeful that KM would be a shift away from the intense focus on information and account for the human aspects of knowledge: that knowledge requires a knower. They have a great phrasing: information can easily be written down and transferred. But it is much harder to detach (and transfer) knowledge from the know-er and the context in which that knowledge resides.

The book is still important even after 10 years. It doesn’t even mention business intelligence, yet it addresses some of its fundamental problems.

Take a look at The Social Life of Information on Google Books. I also recommend Knowledge Jolt with Jack. Always worthwhile.


  1. Jack Vinson says:

    Thanks for the comments, Ted. I think you have made a good connection to BI. If all business needed was the information and the connections amongst the information, we could automate the entire business world. The Social Life of Information makes a strong case for what has been missing.

  2. Delaney Turner says:

    This is a topic that’s been ignored for far too long. But now that business users are taking on a larger role in BI purchases (or just creating their own information), IT – traditionally the “home base” of BI will need to explore new ways to make their information come alive. It’s also important to consider the context surrounding the information and the user’s corresponding expectations of it. It’s akin to an “analog vs. digital” dichotomy – I’ve blogged about it here: http://bit.ly/af6J2a

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