Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Energy knowledge

Energy is crucial to almost every aspect of our economy. Our current use of energy is predicated on the idea of an abundance of cheap sources. Now, the prices are rising. We should prepare to behave differently and knowledge is going to help.

We have not yet reached peak oil production, the significant point at which supply will no longer be able to grow to reach an increasing demand. Nevertheless, fossil fuel prices at present are high, due in part to low investment in the last ten years. Demand is rising, especially in China, which has only just begun to motorize in significant volume. Chinese motorization is significant not just because of the size of the growth, but also because of the lack of an alternative fuel for cars.

Economists assure us that GDP in the US and Europe is less dependent on oil than it once was and that therefore we are better prepared than we once were for increased energy costs. Sadly, the laws of physics haven't changed. Our imports, once manufactured domestically, still require energy. We will pay additional import costs one way or another.

This is no bad thing. Higher fossil fuel costs will do more to mitigate climate change than any amount of imploring from well-intentioned commentators. Innovation in energy might provide greater political stability, too.

Information will be critical to energy innovation, to support decisions to reduce demand, improve efficiency, make new investments in breakthrough technologies and undertake fundamental research and science.

There is a socially important and profitable future in energy and knowledge.

Do better by being informed

'Knowledge Management' is a hateful phrase, despised for failing to deliver or failing to define itself. This is a shame, because the original idea - do better by being informed - is a good one. What happened?

Do better - waste less, spend less, sell more, charge more, make a greater margin - by making good decisions. Your decisions are more likely to deliver results if you are well informed. Knowledge management was meant to support such decisions by delivering answers to the right people at the right time and place. It was to do this by recording, measuring, instrumenting, institutionalising journalism, creating searchable archives of electronic data and promoting knowledge sharing between people.

The technical difficulty is the first hurdle. Assuming you can capture all this information, to make a difference you need to use it to build a landscape and plot a profitable course through that landscape. The scientific method of recording data, hypothesizing and inferring correct causal relationships is not easy. But then, try doing it without the data in the first place.

The second hurdle is that at a management level the big picture is easily missed and it loses priority. People latch on to a component - a search engine, a web page, the idea of having meetings - and equate knowledge management to just that. It's then easy to reduce its priority. Other things take over, such as the urgent need to make a decision, and the knowledge management effort is lost while everyone scrabbles around for the information needed to make that decision.

If the phrase 'knowledge management' isn't working in your environment, drop it. But don't lose sight of the value of being informed when you need to make a decision.