How much knowledge can one person hold? Introducing the Personbyte.

What are the limits to one person’s knowledge? Other than being “one personbyte”?

books in a stack (a stack of books)
Books in a stack by Evan Bench on Flickr

The April 1, 2017 edition of New Scientist magazine had the theme of Knowledge, and contained a set of Knowledge-related articles, one of which dealt with the issue of how much one person can know.

The issue, it turns out, is not so much about the storage capacity of the human brain, but the appallingly low speed of uploading the knowledge. Compared to computers, we are very very slow at inputting new material, and the limits to knowledge are constrained by our learning rate rather than our storage capacity.

The article describes the idea of a “personbyte” – the amount of knowledge one person can reasonably learn in a lifetime. In the craftsman economy of 100 years ago, a personbyte was enough knowledge to create an impressive artefact – a steamboat, a canal, or a suspension bridge. Nowadays one personbyte is nowhere near enough to create modern products, or deliver modern services.

For example New Scientist suggests that

“to build an F-22 Raptor fighter jet, complete with on-board missile-guidance systems, you are going to need many thousands of personbytes.”

Which means, of course, that you are going to need Knowledge Management, to ensure that the knowledge from thousands of people is integrated into a single design and product.

If all the necessary knowledge can be held by one person then there is no need for KM (Aristotle didn’t need a knowledge manager), but when a job requires the knowledge of thousands of people, then there needs to be some sort of management system in place; not just to coordinate this knowledge, but to preserve it for the future. When the Raptor Jet needs to be serviced, for example, that knowledge needs to still be available.

For any job requiring more than one personbyte of knowledge, the knowledge work must be seen as a collective endeavour and not a personal endeavour, which means that the knowledge must be treated collectively and seen as a collective resource.  The role of KM is to ensure that the collective resource is well managed, accessible when needed, and of a reliable quality.

As the New Scientist article concludes;

“The barrier to progress lies not in the quantity of knowledge our brains can hold, but in its quality”

So its not so much about how much knowledge a worker can personally know, but whether they can access the correct, relevant, high quality, knowledge at the right time.

Ensuring the availability and quality of this knowledge is our task as knowledge managers.

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