According to a recent article in Science News, an international team of researchers is developing a free, multilanguage, Web-based encyclopedia that will aggregate all data about every living species known — currently 1.8 million — and continue to add information about life forms as they are discovered. Dr. James Edwards, executive director of the project, said key components of the Encyclopedia of Life will be made available to the general public sometime in 2008. (Prototype pages are viewable now at www.eol.org.)
The sheer magnitude of this undertaking immediately intrigued me. But what really caught my attention and got me thinking was the statement that the encyclopedia would “combine the authority of a traditional print behemoth with the collaborative spirit of the Web’s user-created Wikipedia.”
Apparently, the creators of the encyclopedia will start with information from established scientific databases but, as the project grows, ordinary citizens such as bird watchers, backyard gardeners and schoolchildren will be able to contribute.
By combining all these sources with the vast functionality of the Web, Edwards explained, an entry for a species in the Encyclopedia of Life might include its “genetic sequence, recordings of noises it makes and videos of it ‘doing something interesting.’”
As someone who likes to be in control of the situation — or at least that’s what I’ve been told — I couldn’t quite grasp how this kind of “mass authorship” possibly could work on such a grand scale. All I could think about was what could go wrong.
There are those who might chalk up my misgivings to generational bias or lack of technical sophistication. Although it’s true that I don’t begin to comprehend all the functionality and freedom afforded by open-source technology and the Internet, I’m no dinosaur. The possibility of sabotage or the dissemination of intentional misinformation by those with less-than-altruistic agendas wasn’t what troubled me.
Rather, I was struck by the raw and awesome power of information itself. Advances in technology for searching, annotating and visualizing information have created infinite possibilities for those who possess it. At the same time, these same strides have exponentially increased our responsibilities as human data transmitters, receivers and processors.
As the sheer volume of recorded data expands beyond our capacity to even measure it, so does the list of things that we don’t begin to understand. There is a huge gap between information and knowledge, between facts and comprehension. The only way to span this abyss is through learning.
As a chief learning officer, you are the architect and engineer of this bridge for your organization. It is your responsibility not only to survey the learning and development needs of the workforce, accumulate the appropriate resources, erect the structure of an effective learning organization and provide easy access for everyone in the enterprise but also to conduct periodic inspections.
It’s your job to make absolutely certain your learning and development initiatives include sufficiently strong, solid connections between information and insight, as well as between knowing and doing. Without those connections, it is impossible for the people in your organization to turn learning into high performance, to apply what they’ve been taught to their day-to-day job functions or to use static business data to make the crucial, dynamic, strategic decisions your business demands.
Fortunately, as I continued reading about the Encyclopedia of Life, I discovered the great minds behind its creation already thought some of this through. Not only will the encyclopedia be available in all major languages, it also will allow users to personalize their experience through its “My EOL” feature. Visitors to this vast ecosystem of Web pages will be able to control the complexity of the information delivered to them by setting the level from novice to expert. I found that comforting.
If you’d like to share your thoughts on life — in the world of enterprise education or in general — you can reach me at Norm@CLOmedia.com. I’ll probably still be reading everything there is to know about aardvarks!
Editor in Chief