Knowledge is not the same as information

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.

and

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.

The myth of knowledge transfer

The teatowelclub explained - an email to Chris Hawkins

Hi Chris

Given the current revival of interest in teatowels, I thought it a good time to try and clear up some of the confusion that surrounds the teatowelclub. Bear with me. I’m sure there are lots of people out there who want some clarification.

First off, it’s worth stating that you don’t have to own a teatowel to be a member of the teatowelclub. Although it helps. Sometimes. But… (and it’s a big ‘but’) owning a teatowel doesn’t automatically confer membership of the teatowelclub.

I’m glad we’ve got that straight.

So what is the teatowelclub if it isn’t a group of people who own teatowels? Good question. I found this definition on the web:

The #teatowelclub are a bunch of dedicated early bird listeners to Chris Hawkins 5-7am radio show on BBC Radio 6 Music.

Well yes, kind of. Apart from the obvious grammatical errors (teatowelclub is singular, not plural; ‘Hawkins’ should have a possessive apostrophe and possibly also an extra ‘s’ at the end) there are one or two teatowelclub members who rarely listen to the show. Or if they do, they keep quiet. And if they don’t tweet, how do we know they exist?

Maybe it would help to consider the use of the teatowelclub hashtag on Twitter. It’s common knowledge that anyone can use a hashtag. So adding #teatowelclub to a tweet doesn’t make anyone a teatowelclub member. Now I come to think of it, many teatowelclub members regularly omit the teatowelclub hashtag from their tweets. Yet they are still members. Fact.

And then there’s the formal membership application process. You know, when someone actually asks to join. Tradition has it that once an established teatowelclub member says “you’re in!” to an aspiring member, that person is, well, in. But this implies that the person was somehow out, and could – presumably – become out again, which reminds me of that explanation of cricket:

Each member of the side that’s in goes out, and when they’re out they come in and the next person goes in until they’re out. When they are all out, the side that’s out comes in and the side that’s been in goes out and tries to get those coming in, out.

Exactly. In. Out. In. Out. Shake it all about. Quite appropriate for a teatowel, don’t you think? Hey, it could even become a famous dance! Oh… 

Interestingly, the cricket explanation was made famous by being printed on a teatowel. I don’t just make this up as I go along, you know!

Of course, anyone who uses the wrong colour ink on the teatowelclub membership application form – or, woe betide them, writes outside the boxes – will be refused membership. Unless they have some other redeeming feature. Usually one involving cats or dogs.

And finally, according to Beany*:

You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

Welcome to the teatowelclub.

That’s clear now, eh? 

Judy x

*Beany is @tangerinebean - one of the founder members of the teatowelclub on Twitter

Listen to Chris reading this explanation (with lovely comments and giggles from Producer Slev) on the BBC iPlayer (23 minutes into the show). Available until Wednesday 7 December.

Better questions, please…

Ask anyone who is involved in knowledge management, and they will tell you that knowledge itself can’t be managed. What can be managed is the organisational environment in which knowledge sharing takes place. Employees who feel valued, trusted and empowered are likely to share their knowledge with colleagues and come up with new ideas that make the organisation more effective and more efficient. Those who don’t feel this way probably won’t. And how do we make employees feel valued, trusted and empowered? We value them. We trust them. We don’t micro-manage. Yes, I know this is a massive simplification, but that’s the essence of it.

Yesterday the Culture, Media and Sport Committee questioned Rupert and James Murdoch: two men in the most senior positions at News Corporation. Most of the MPs’ questions were about how much the Murdochs knew about what was going on at an operational level, which could be taken to imply that they should know. That’s certainly how many people on Twitter (which turned into one massive kangaroo court) took it. Should we expect anyone at Chairman and CEO level to know such things? I don’t think so. If they did, they’d be micro-managing, and that’s bad, right?

Here’s the twist. If trusting and empowering people helps knowledge flow around an organisation in a beneficial way, why (assuming they were telling the truth – and personally I believe they were) didn’t the knowledge of allegedly widespread illegal practices flow towards Rupert and James Murdoch?

Isn’t this the kind of question we should be asking?

See also this extremely thoughtful blog post from an HR professional. Thank you Neil.

Learning difficulties

Dear Student

Please don’t try to impress me with your understanding of philosophy. It doesn’t impress me, it just winds me up. It winds me up because I know, instinctively, that you are wrong. Yet still I spend hours researching the point, just in case you are right, just in case you really do understand the nuances of the philosophical debate you have summarised. My instincts are right, of course: you are comparing apples with oranges, and over-simplifying the argument to boot.

So your assignment, which I am paid a meagre £15 to mark, takes me four hours to assess. I am working for less than the minimum wage. This leads to resentment. Marks deducted.

Thank you! Thank you for drawing my attention to this corner of philosophy so neglected by management researchers that I had never come across it before. 

Having spent a few hours researching the point, my eyes have been opened to a whole new world of possibilities. How easy it is to become blinkered when you think you know what you’re doing!

Extra marks for helping me reach new insights.    

If the trees go…

If the trees go, will the birds go too? I don’t want to lose the birds. I don’t want to lose the chaffinches, those little bundles of muscles and feathers and deep pink down, plumped up against the cold. I don’t want to lose the goldfinches, tiny and exquisite, brave and strong. I don’t want to lose the nuthatches, the greenfinches, the long-tailed tits, the collared doves that have learned to eat from the seed feeder. I don’t want to lose the squirrels, either, although I know there are those who do. I enjoy their acrobatics, their chattering and screeching.

I don’t want to lose the stillness. I don’t want to lose the birdsong, the whistling air as pigeons fly over the trees, the smell of damp earth and woodsmoke. I want to be able to hear the cabinet maker’s circular saw in the distance, the crackling and popping of bonfires – lots of bonfires. I want to hear the red kites’ vibrato mewing as they circle overhead.

Such a small piece of land: the bottom third of two long thin gardens belonging to a pair of 1930s semis, now knocked into one by our neighbour. Gardens so long that no normal person could maintain them, gardens left to the wild, to the trees, to the birds. This scruffy little woodland, the result of the neighbour’s quite reasonable neglect, provides the perfect backdrop to our neatly-tended vegetable plot.

Read More

Deep

  • This little exchange from two members of the Twitter #teatowelclub.
  • BlueTerrapin: Was about to post a deep tweet. Decided against it. *goes back to complaining about hangover*
  • MrOliverMellors: @BlueTerrapin Can a tweet ever be deep? Really? Really?
  • BlueTerrapin: @MrOliverMellors It was for me.

Shared values

This interesting blog by Dave Snowden really caught my attention. Dave explains that it is often a mistake to write down your organisation’s values. “What?” I hear you say. “How will we communicate them?”

The reason it caught my attention is that I am setting up a new, values-led venture with some friends (more on this at a later date). By ‘values-led’ I mean that we want everything we do to reflect our strong beliefs about the way things – and we – should be. So far we have shied away from writing down these beliefs. Dave’s blog made me realise why.

Yes, we have strong values. Yes, we have discussed their importance. But we haven’t fully articulated them because somewhere, deep down, we know capturing them won’t convey the depth of meaning we all feel. Values are deeply tacit. They have personal meaning as well as shared meaning. They have different relevance, different resonance at different times. We have discussed our values enough to know there is a strong core of shared beliefs. We know each other well, we care about each other, we work together in the first place because we have shared values.

There is still a need to communicate our values to our partners and the wider world. Thanks to Dave Snowden we now know not to destroy them by capturing them in a conventional list. They should be free, not caged! We will follow his advice and create stories, use metaphor, use short sayings. We might even draw pictures and write poems…