Knowledge Unit

A Finite Problem-Solution
August 6, 2006
Jeff Elpern


SQI uses formal knowledge theory for insight into our specific domain - the commercial deployment and support of complex products. Applying knowledge theory from this perspective we can tighten knowledge definitions.


SQI defines knowledge in the above context as a specific unit that leads to a specific result:

A Knowledge Unit is a problem-solution representation. When the solution to a problem is communicated effectively, it enables a product user experiencing a problem to solve the problem in a manner that assures the product's expected Economic Return.

Key aspects of this definition are:

  • Knowledge is a Finite Unit
    Knowledge is the association of two components: the problem to be solved and the information that provides a solution. This means that Knowledge is a specific, finite problem/solution unit.

  • Knowledge affects Economic Quality
    It is Knowledge only if it directly effects a product's Economic Quality. In the CIE context, Knowledge is not something interesting, nor is it something informative, and it is not simply data. Knowledge is integral to the product's successful delivery of economic returns expected by the client.

An Actionable Concept

The SQI Knowledge Unit is an actionable concept that immediately increases the Economic Quality of a product. The Knowledge Unit presents clear guidelines for small firms selling sophisticated products to demanding, large clients. The process of acting is:

  1. At the client interface, identify situations where the user's skill level (internal knowledge) is not sufficient to accomplish an assigned task using the product.
  2. Develop a solution, within the user's context, and verify its appropriateness by direct delivery from the support team.
  3. Create a Knowledge Unit(s) and make it available via Self Service technology to users experiencing the same issue in the future. (Note: Multiple contexts, and thus multiple Knowledge Units, may be required to address users with vastly different skill levels experiencing the same problem.)

This form of knowledge, as a managed process developing specific solutions, increases Economic Quality to users and increases the firm's margins by reducing direct support costs.

Problem-Solution Representation

The definition of a Knowledge Unit talks about a Problem-Solution Representation - a technical aspect referring to the information packaging. Many content technologies are used to store Knowledge Units and all can be effective communication channels

However, the most important part of the Representation is user access. The technology must make it easy for the user to find the appropriate Knowledge Unit.

The Problem - Solution Pair

The Problem/Solution pair has a number of names:

  • Problem - Solution
  • Issue – Action
  • Task – Steps
  • Business Process – Work Flow
  • Frequently Ask Questions
  • How Tos

Whatever the terms used, the form and function of the representation is the same:

  • a user needs to accomplish a specific task
  • the user's internal knowledge – experience, training, etc. - is not able to provide the required actions
  • required actions are presented in the user's context (general domain understanding, experience and skill)

Some problem/solution pairs present the knowledge representation in an informal setting – FAQ - and others present a much more formal environment – Business Processes. However, they all have the same components and strive for the same result - deliver the product's economic return.

Problem Component

SQI defines the problem component of a knowledge unit as:

What a user experiences executing a given task that impedes the user's expected economic return, and thus the Economic Quality, of the product.

Key aspects of the definition are:

  • Many types of users

    • The term user encompasses all individuals evolved with any aspect of the product. This includes end-users, application integrators, installers, and system architects just to name a few.

  • Problems asociated with Economic Quality

    • Only experiences that impede economic returns are classified by SQI as problems. Thus the problem component is defined by real-world events.
  • Knowledge Unit is Situation Specific

    • Knowledge Unit is associated with an issue encountered with trying to accomplish a task, given the product's configuration. In some cases, a knowledge unit is relevant to only a specific configuration. Other times knowledge is relevant to a range on product configurations. But it is always associated with a single task.

Most user problems are solvable by providing the information, within the appropriate context for the user's skill level, on how to proceed. These situations are the focus of knowledge units. Some problems are “hard” product bugs that only engineering changes can address.

Solution Component

SQI defines the Solution/Context component as:

A Solution is an information set on how to accomplish the target task, which is communicated to the user in a context that allows the user to perform the required corrective actions.

Key aspects of the definition are:

  • The Solution is an Action plan

    • The Solution is a very direct group of actions – a set – for the user to perform. And, performing these steps will accomplished the target task.
  • The Solution is User-Context Specific

    • The phrase “communicated to” in the definition means that the solution information must be valid within the “context” of the user's ability to understand the information and execute the actions required.

User Context

A solution always has user context – a profile of general technical competence, educational background, understanding of the product and enabling components, and general understanding of the product's domain.

The context of the solution is probably the hardest aspect of the Knowledge Unit to address. Getting the context correct requires knowing or estimating the skill set of the target user-profile. For example, the statement “change the Apache configuration file so that option X is active” is perfect context for a experienced Linux system administration. However, this will most likely overwhelmed a novice Linux user who needs a much more detailed step-by-step explanation.

To understand user context, create profiles of the different users interacting with your product and the expected skill levels and background of each profile. Craft Knowledge Units to communicate effectively given a specific profile. And, of course, monitor the communications effectiveness of Knowledge Units and change context profiles as required.

Types of Knowledge

Different types of knowledge exist. Knowledge that is well understood and documented is different that knowledge that is created when support is asked to solve a difficult client requirement. See the links below for more details.

Knowledge Management is the process of capturing knowledge and moving isolated, situational knowledge units to a broader, more general access.

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