Know-how – the primary focus for KM?

There are two primary types of knowledge which we tend to manage – Know-How and Know-What. Of the two, Know-how is more the natural focus for KM.

The Knowledge Management arena is a very confused place to be, and different people, different countries and different industries see Knowledge Management, and indeed Knowledge itself, in a very different light.

Some people see Knowledge Management as a new word for the Management of Information; for example you will see many organisations whose definition of Knowledge Management is “getting the right information to the right people at the right time” – a definition already applied to Information Management.

Others (ourselves included) see Knowledge Management as something more – related to sharing of experiences and insights that give others a greater level of understanding and capability in order that they can act more effectively and efficiently.

Part of the confusion between Knowledge Management and Information Management is almost certainly the lack, in the English language, of any distinction between Know-How (capability, familiarity), and Know-What (grasp of facts). 

 English is unusual in using the same word (“knowledge”) for both of these forms of knowing. Other languages differentiate them – Savoir and Connaitre in French, Kunne and Vite in Norwegian etc. In the English language, however, Knowledge is a word that is lost in translation; a single word for two concepts which in other languages are distinguished by two words. (In fact in German there are three words).

In English, we lump these two types of knowledge in a single word, and as a result can confuse two separate disciplines.

Two types of “knowledge”

The two types of Knowledge are very different, and have huge implications in KM terms. Know-what is about knowing facts, Know-how is about familiarity with actions and processes – understanding what to do with the facts, understanding how to make decisions and how to take effective action.

Know-What is Information. Know-How often (or usually) isn’t.

Most of the information in your organisation is “Know-what” – knowing what was done by someone at some time, or what numbers of X were sold, or what the price of Y was, or what someone wrote in an email.  The know-what is valuable, and good information management will make sure that the right information reaches the right people, but information without knowledge makes you better informed but none the wiser.

Knowledge management has always delivered its real value when applied to “Know-How” – to improving the competence of the organisation by giving people access to the know-how they need to make correct decisions. If they know how to decide, they will act correctly. Know-how management focuses on the exchange and re-use of experiences, guidance and insights; through communities of practice, lesson learning, the development of “best practice” knowledge assets, collective sense-making, and innovation, as well as the development of a culture of learning and sharing.

Knowledge, action and decisions

The link between action and knowledge is hidden in the word “Can” – as in “I Can Do this”. Etymology online tells us that Can is

Old English 1st & 3rd person singular present indicative of Cunnan “to know,” less commonly as an auxiliary, “to have power to, to be able,” … from Proto-Germanic *kunnjanan “to be mentally able, to have learned” (source also of Old Norse kenna “to become acquainted, try,” Old Frisian kanna “to recognize, admit, know,” German kennen “to know,” Middle Dutch kennen “to know,” Gothic kannjan “to make known”), from PIE root *gno- “to know.” It holds now only the third sense of “to know,” that of “to know how to do something” (as opposed to “to know as a fact” and “to be acquainted with” something or someone).

If only we still had that word Cunnen – we could have “Cunnan Management”, similar to Kennismanagement; the Dutch term for KM. This term would hold that meaning of mental ability, which would differentiate it from the marshalling of facts and records.

However we English speakers are stuck with a single word for knowledge, unless we distinguish through the use of  “know-how” and “know-what” as substitutes. This then allows us to see KM as a discipline concerned with providing people with know-how and mental capability, allowing them to understand information (know-what) and make it actionable.

If you give people Know-How, they Can-Do.  Thats the real value of KM

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Shared by: Nick Milton

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