People often ask me how to ‘do’ knowledge management. I still haven’t figured out a good answer, mostly because I think it’s the wrong question – although I understand why people ask it. I usually respond by trying to explain that the key to being ‘good at KM’ is understanding some basic principles. Then I get confused, because I know that ‘understanding’ isn’t something I can deliver. That’s down to the person who asks the question. So I end up answering the question How do I get to…? with Well, I wouldn’t start from here… and probably seeming foolish and ignorant to boot.
There are plenty of ‘how to do KM’ guides out there. Some of them are very good. The point is that without an understanding of the principles, you’ll probably pick the wrong ‘how to’ guide for you. And I’m about 80% convinced that once you do understand the principles, you won’t need the ‘how to’ guide at all.
Right up at the top of my list of principles is the difference between knowledge and information. Without an understanding of this, you’ll almost certainly end up managing information and calling it KM.
Debate about knowledge and information has been going on for centuries – and there are different views. As these things go, this provides the perfect excuse for waving your hands around and making vague comments along the lines of ‘we’re getting into the realms of philosophy here’. I’ve done it myself. But to be good at KM as well as IM requires an understanding of knowledge, and that understanding has to include the concept that there is more to knowledge than that you can capture in writing.
In 1998, California Management Review published an article by Liam Fahey and Laurence Prusak called The eleven deadliest sins of knowledge management. The first – and most important – ‘sin’ is not developing a working definition of knowledge. The argument goes like this: people who fail to develop a shared understanding of what knowledge is (and what it means for their organisation) inevitably end up equating knowledge with data and information. Once this happens, the organisation’s good intentions to manage knowledge turn into information management. Knowledge is treated as an object that can be captured, stored and disseminated – and doing all this uses up time and attention, at the expense of the real knowledge (the valuable stuff in people’s heads) that should be developed and maintained as the basis for decisions and actions.
What I really like about the article is the advice to readers, including:
Managers need to continually reflect on knowledge as an organisational phenomenon.
Allow individuals frequent opportunities to discuss and debate what knowledge is.
Fourteen years since the article was published, and people are still confusing knowledge with information, often using the terms interchangeably. So here are some things about knowledge and information that might trigger deeper understanding – even if you disagree with some of them. Especially if you disagree with some of them.
One of the reasons for the confusion is that there are different types of knowledge: only some of which are anything like information. A common way of classifying knowledge is to separate it into explicit and tacit. Explicit knowledge is that which can readily be codified, usually into words and numbers. Once codified it is easy to share. Tacit knowledge is more personal and difficult to express. It includes experience, beliefs and values – and things we don’t know we know, which makes it difficult to share.
But even explicit knowledge can never be captured completely. No matter how hard we try, we can never write down everything we know. Once explicit knowledge has been codified, it is information. It is an incomplete representation of someone’s knowledge. Explicit knowledge can’t be separated completely from tacit knowledge: our experience, beliefs and values influence our perception of our own explicit knowledge. (And yes, what you are reading is information – an incomplete representation of my knowledge, influenced by my experience, beliefs and values.)
Knowledge only exists, therefore, in the heads of individuals and in groups of people with shared understanding. The part that can’t be written down is often the most valuable, so effective KM has to include connecting people to other people – not just connecting people to information. Or, as Thomas Davenport and Laurence Prusak advise, hire smart people and let them talk to one another.
It also helps to understand the relationship between knowledge and information. The way Harold Jarche dismisses the popular data-information-knowledge-wisdom pyramid is the best explanation I’ve come across so far:
Data does not create information; information does not create knowledge and knowledge does not create wisdom. People use their knowledge to make sense of data and information. People create information that represents their knowledge, which can then be more widely shared.
Liam Fahey and Laurence Prusak (1998) The Eleven Deadliest Sins of Knowledge Management.California Management Review Vol 40, No3.
Thomas Davenport and Laurence Prusak (1998) Working Knowledge: How Organizations Manage What They Know. Harvard Business School Press, Boston, Massachusetts.