The 3 different types of knowledge, and how they are managed

There is more than one type of Knowledge, and KM needs to decide which type requires the main focus and effort.

Both linguistically and philosophically there is more than one type of knowledge. This is important, and is an area where the English Language is less than helpful to the KM practitioner.

The linguistic differences in types of knowledge

It has been a long running thread within this blog, that the English language is inadequate when it comes to talking about Knowledge.  Where other languages describe two or more forms of knowing, we have only one word for both. It is this inadequacy that is at the heart of many disagreements about Knowledge Management. 

We use the same word when asking “Do you know her name” as when asking “Do you know her”. However we are describing two types of knowing here – the first is a Fact, the second is a Familiarity.  If you know someone’s name, then you can recall a fact about them. If you know someone, then you are familiar with them.

Similarly we can ask “Do you know what a bicycle is?” and  “Do you know how to ride a bicycle?” The first is recollection of a Fact, the second is an Ability. In English we use the same word for both, but in other languages we use different words.

The philosophical differences in types of knowledge

I am not a philosopher, I have not studied the philosophy of knowledge and knowing, but I am aware of some of the ideas, and I know that for philosophers there are two or three types of knowledge:

  • Propositional knowledge or Declarative Knowledge, which is knowledge of facts (like who won the FA cup, or what last month’s sales figures are);
  • Procedural knowledge, which is knowledge of how to do something (like ride a bicycle);
  • A third type – sometimes called Knowledge by Acquaintance, sometimes called Strategic Knowledge,  or Conditional Knowledge. This is knowledge of when and why to apply different procedures, use specific approaches or makce certain choices, which comes from deep familiarity. 

I really recommend this article about procedural and declarative knowledge, and the links between the two, and the two camps when it comes to the links between the two:

  • Intellectualism, which believes that all procedural knowledge either can be made declarative, or already is declarative;
  • Anti-intellectualism, which believes that the two are different.


The three types.

The table below discusses these types of knowledge

Declarative knowledge

Procedural knowledge

Familiarity/Strategic knowledge

“I know that ….” “I know how to …” “I know … (a person, a place, a topic)”
Savoir in French Connaitre in French Savoir Faire in French?
Wissen in German Kennen in German
Gained through instruction and memorisation Gained through coaching, experience, or shared experience from others Gained through long experience, apprentice-ship, and working closely with experts
Transmitted easily through written means Often difficult to transmit through written means Impossible to transmit through written means, although recorded stories can help share experience
Machines and IT systems can store facts faithfully Machines and IT systems can store some aspects of procedural knowledge but not all Machines and IT systems cannot (or at least cannot easily) store familiarity
Does not give ability Gives ability to act and decide Gives ability to act and decide in unique conditions, to think strategically, and to predict
Entirely explicit, mostly codified A mixture of explicit, implicit and tacit. Variously codified. Usually tacit and uncodified.
Declarative knowledge has value to an organisation Procedural knowledge has LARGE value to an organisation Familiarity has MASSIVE value to an organisation

In Knoco, we tend to focus our Knowledge Management support on ways to develop Procedural Knowledge and Familiarity (without losing sight of the need to provide access to facts). This is because we feel that:

  1. Much declarative knowledge is already managed through Information Management tools and approaches, and requires little new from KM;
  2. You can argue that the purpose of KM is to enable actions and decisions, thus requiring a focus on Know-how and Can-do.
I know this is arguable, and Luc Glasbeek suggested in a comment to an earlier post that the field of knowledge should not be divided, and expanded his discussion here.

However the fact that many languages already have more than one word for knowledge suggests that there is already a recognised division of knowledge into more than one type. In French, Knowledge Management is Gestion des Connaissance – “une démarche managériale pluridisciplinaire qui regroupe l’ensemble des initiatives, des méthodes et des techniques permettant de percevoir, identifier, analyser, organiser, mémoriser, partager les connaissances des membres d’une organisation” according to Wikipedia – a discipline focused on Connaissance, rather than Savoir; on Know-how rather than Know-what.

KM can support the management of Procedural and Familiarity knowledge in a number of ways;

  • Using knowledge management to allow new staff to become rapidly familiar with organisational processes and procedural know-how;
  • Developing a shared familiarity of an operation or activity through discussions within a community of practice;
  • Using team learning processes such as Peer Assist and After Action Review to help a team “climb the learning curve of know-how and familiarity” more quickly;
  • Applying a Knowledge Retention Strategy to ensure that an organisation does not lose know-how familiarity with crucial processes, practices and relationships when key people retire;
  • Setting up processes of on-the-job coaching, reflection and learning that help build deeper familiarity;
  • Sharing stories;
  • Using Lessons Learned to ensure that teams become familiar with pitfalls, workarounds and know-how from previous projects.

Keep this difference in mind as you plan your Knowledge Management strategies. Knowledge is not a simple thing; you will need to pay attention to these multiple ways of Knowing, and decide how best to focus your KM initiative.

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