Why knowledge is social, not personal, and the implication of this view for KM.

There is a school of thought that knowledge lies only in the minds of individuals. I think this is misleading, and that reality is both more complex than this, and more interesting.

A search of the internet will find  a commonly held view in KM circles that Knowledge only exists in the brains of individuals.  

“Knowledge is in the mind” people might say, “and all else is information”.  Thomas Wilson argues this point in his provocative paper “the nonsense of Knowledge Management“, which was written as a polemic against the way Information Management was rebadged Knowledge Management by software vendors and consultants (a process described by Wilson as “search and replace marketing”).

This viewpoint suggests that any way that an individual can find to express knowledge (spoken words, written words, recorded demonstrations) just turns it into information, and that any management applied to this process can only be information management.

Certainly the view of knowledge as a human attribute is very useful as a way of distinguishing knowledge management from information management. However I feel that this view focuses too much on the individual, and that in reality knowledge is not an individual attribute, but something shared and social.  (Please note that in this blog, I use the word “social” to mean related to interactions and relationships between people, rather than as a type of media).

The social nature of knowledge

To introduce this topic, I can do no better than to repeat the words of the great Larry Prusak, spoken at RostatomKM 2016

A key point that we (and by we, I mean the collectivity of practitioners and researchers) have learned is that Knowledge is profoundly social. It is not a factor of the individual but a factor of groups of people. Individuals may have separate memories, but do not have separate Knowledge. 

Larry’s point is that Knowledge is a collective thing. The “tacit knowledge” we hold in our heads is either invented by ourselves or comes from the collective, and what we invent for ourselves is at best provisional knowledge, and at worst delusion. It can include

  • opinions
  • hypotheses
  • prejudices
  • cognitive biases
  • fantasies
  • falsehoods.

What turns these opinions etc. into knowledge is social confirmation and acceptance.


You think you might know something, but it could so easily be confirmation bias, and you don’t know this until you start to test it with others. 

We see this clearly in the development of scientific knowledge. As part of the scientific method individual scientists develop and test hypotheses, but before these hypotheses are accepted as knowledge, they go through a process of peer review and socialisation. As the UK Parliament site explains

Peer Review is the means by which scientific experts in the field review the output from this process for validity, significance, originality and scientific clarity. Peer review is not, as some outside of science might think, designed to be a fraud detection system. Therefore in our view Peer Review and the subsequent publishing of research is only part, albeit an important one, of how new discoveries become accepted into our collective scientific knowledge.

That last sentence is important – “collective scientific knowledge”. There is no such thing as “individual scientific knowledge”, and you could argue, as Larry Prusak does, that there is no “individual knowledge” either.

Plato defined knowledge as “justified true belief”, which means there needs to be a justification mechanism which can judge “truth”. Self-justification by the knower makes no distinction between truth and opinion, and between knowledge and bias. It is the social group that justifies knowledge.

Note however that just because a social group confirms something, does not yet make it knowledge. There are many people in the USA for example who “know” that the world is run by a cabal of devil-worshiping paedophiles, or who “know” that Covid vaccination programs are a tool for government control. Most of us recognise this knowledge as false delusion, but these people “know” they are correct because their views are confirmed by others on the internet. Therefore social justification is not enough to make something knowledge – that justification needs to be continually tested (something that is very difficult to do when confirmation bias is involved). 

The implications for Knowledge Management

This alternative viewpoint – that knowledge is social and is held by groups of people rather than by individuals – still distinguishes knowledge from information, but takes us away from the individual human as the unit of analysis for Knowledge management. Here is Larry Prusak again;

There is much greater emphasis on Networks, Communities and Practices, and I state today that this is the correct unit of analysis if you want to work with knowledge in organisations: Networks, Communities and Practices.

This has five main implications:

  • You need to define your Knowledge Management Framework so that the primary “knowledge unit” is the practice area, and the networks and communities of practice are the mechanisms by which knowledge is shared and managed. This is the approach we take at Knoco when building Knowledge Management Frameworks, and we know that it works.
  • Much of the knowledge work you do will not be concerned with individuals or with documents, but with the interactions between people working in social groups. It is within these interactions (Peer Assists, Retrospects, Knowledge Exchange) that knowledge is built, tested and justified.
  • Documented knowledge should be owned and managed by the communities and networks. They should manage the wiki sites where knowledge is compiled and kept up to date (I mention wiki sites because wikis are, by design, created by ad managed by communities and networks.
  • The collective knowledge should always be open to challenge and testing, in case the community has fallen into a trap of confirmation bias.
  • You will find that the main culture change is getting people to see knowledge as something collective, to be built and maintained socially, rather than their own personal property to be protected and hoarded. 

Try this alternative social-centric viewpoint – I think you will find it very powerful.

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