Automation Is Captured Knowledge – Part 2

Knowledge Codified

In part 1 of this series I mentioned the two types of knowledge that exist within the IT realm at any organization – Formal Knowledge and Informal Knowledge. Here I will be discussing Formal Knowledge and in Part 3 of this series I will talk about Informal Knowledge.

One of the definitions of knowledge is “the body of truths or facts accumulated in the course of time”. One of the important nuances is that knowledge can grow over time. It can also change over time. For example, ‘the earth is flat’ morphed into ‘the earth is an oblate spheroid’ as suggested by Isaac Newton. (If this piece of arguably useless knowledge piques your curiosity, go to http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/earth-is-not-round for an interesting read on this subject.)

Decisions should be based on current, accurate and complete knowledge. So, how can an organization facilitate the availability of current, accurate and complete knowledge? The most effective way to ensure currency is to ensure that only one version of any piece of knowledge exists. Having a ‘single version of the truth’ is a popular way to describe this. Driving toward this single version reduces the risk of an action being taken based on outdated knowledge. A simple, IT-related example of this would be a case where a support person has a local copy of a procedure manual at home. He gets a call in the middle of the night about a particular job failing. He refers to his procedure manual and takes the actions described. BUT… what if the required actions had been modified and the procedure manual in the support person’s office had been updated but his local copy had not been? The potential for problems is obvious.

The way to address this potential problem is to have a single knowledge repository that is easily accessible by everyone who might need it.

The ‘single knowledge repository’ addresses the currency issue, but what about accuracy and completeness? If knowledge is stored in free-form text mode, it is left completely up to the author or editor to do their best to ensure it is accurate and complete. Validating the accuracy and completeness of knowledge stored in text-based documents is neither easy nor quick.

Most IT knowledge is structured along the lines of ‘when this occurs, do that’ – or, put another way, what events trigger what actions. For example, when File X arrives from Supplier Y (the ‘event’), this is what needs to be done (the ‘actions’). In a manual world, this type of knowledge will often be stored in flowcharts, complemented by text descriptions of individual events and actions, as well as decision points. In the File X example above, possible decision points could be ‘is the file empty?’ or ‘has the entire file arrived?’. Each of these decision points and its possible outcomes needs to be fully described. These flowcharts can become very complex and it can be difficult to confirm if all possible paths have been fully described. If all possible paths are not fully described, the knowledge is not complete.

Complete and accurate knowledge, stored in a single repository represents the kind of Formal Knowledge that all organizations should strive towards.

IT Automation tools can deliver many benefits to an organization, including processing efficiency, reduction of errors, and cost savings. Some IT Automation tools also provide the logical location for the IT Knowledge Repository. In this ideal case, Formal Knowledge is captured right alongside the processes that have been set up to leverage that knowledge.

The very act of capturing processes and their associated documentation into an automation tool encourages the responsible individual to consider all possibilities within the process flow that occur in response to an event or combination of events. Having to formally define a process and enter the flow into an automation tool, leads one to consider many ‘what if’ scenarios that might not be considered when simply creating text-based documentation. Effective IT organizations will often use this same automation tool to automate testing procedures. Quality Assurance groups rely heavily on documentation provided to them. As they build test processes and integrate them into the automation tool, they are adding more relevant detail to the documentation repository available to the whole organization. Instead of having ‘IT Operations Documentation’ the organization could have access to a comprehensive repository of codified business processes.

Setting up processes in an automation tool and documenting them within that tool takes a big step towards ensuring that an IT organization’s Formal Knowledge is complete, up to date and accurate. If the automation tool provides the capability to search through and cross-reference all the captured knowledge, this makes it MUCH easier to keep the knowledge up to date.

I will talk about Informal Knowledge and why it is important to transform that into Formal Knowledge in the next article in this series.