The uniqueness of Knowledge Management

What makes KM unique? This post from the archives attempts to explain.

Image by dayeonge from Pixabay

Any management discipline needs to have a defined unique area of scope if it is to add value. It needs to be different enough from other disciplines, and distinct enough, that it has its own niche of operation. So what’s distinct and unique about knowledge management?

Knowledge Management is a discipline that is often confused with others. Knowledge Management and information management, for example, often are confused or conflated. Knowledge Management and Training also is an area of confusion, as is KM and content management.
Here is what distinguishes KM from those other disciplines.

Knowledge Management and Information Management

Information management covers the management of all information resources, whether they are knowledge resources or not. Knowledge Management covers the management of knowledge, some of which may be codified as information. There is therefore an overlap between the two, as well as distinct areas.

  • The overlap is all codified knowledge – knowledge (ie know-how) in documented form, such as guidance, instructions, FAQs, checklists and lessons.
  • The area unique to IM is the management of all of the other (non-knowledge) information resources. 
  • The area unique to KM is the management of undocumented knowledge resources; largely done. through promoting connection between people using interventions such as Communities of Practice. 
See here for a more detailed explanation

Knowledge Management and document management/ECM

Document management is a subset of information management. Document management covers the management of electronic documents, whether they are knowledge or not. Knowledge Management covers the management of knowledge, some of which may be codified within electronic documents. As above, there is an overlap between the two, as well as distinct separate areas.

See here for what you are missing if you think KM is the same as document management

Knowledge Management and Organisational Learning

These two are very closely related, and to be honest the two could be combined. However I would suggest that Organisational Learning is the objective, and Knowledge Management is the method.

Knowledge Management and business intelligence

Business intelligence is the gathering and supply of business related data and information which can then be used for either supporting decisions, forecasting future events or discovering trends within a set of information.  Knowledge management is about the development of the know-how that allows people to make decisions, based on these (and other) data.  It s what enables an organisation to know what to do with the intelligence.

Knowledge Management and Internal Communications

Internal communications is about providing and publishing news and information to people.
Knowledge Management is about the exchange and re-use of knowledge between people.

Knowledge Management and Training

Training focuses on the developing the learning  and knowledge of the individual.
Knowledge management focuses on the developing the learning and knowledge of the organisation.

Knowledge Management and Innovation

Innovation is about creating new ideas. Knowledge Management is about testing ideas and learning from them. See here for a longer discussion about the difference between the two. 

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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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If you think KM is only about managing documents, you are missing a lot!

The organisation, findability and access to documents is part of KM, but by no means all.

There is a strong tradition of document management within the KM field, and this is a very good thing. Some of an organisation’s knowledge will be held within documents (although some would argue this point) and those knowledge-holding documents need to be managed, organised findable and usable; just like any other document.

However if document management or content management is all that your KM program is working on, you are missing out on many things. Here are a few of them.

  1. Identifying and externalising knowledge. This represents helping experts and teams to express what they know, so that others can hear it, or so that the knowledge can be recorded in video or documented form. This is the area of where interviewing processes are very important. Much of an expert’s knowledge is uncionsiocus – too deep for them to recognise – and this deep knowledge is not only where the really valuable knowledge lies, it is also the knowledge that otherwise would never end up in a document.  KM should include processes and roles to aid in identifying and externalising this knowledge.


  2. Connecting people in communities of practice. This represents a focus on creating knowledge-sharing networks which act as reservoirs of tacit knowledge, which can be shared, combined and built collectively. This tacit knowledge may never be codified, and much of the knowledge transfer happens through conversation rather than content. A series of posts on this blog, and the Knoco website CoP page, provide a whole set of guidance on communities of practice, which remains knowledge management’s Number 1 core tool, at least for larger organisations. CoPs are not an information management discipline.


  3. Transfer of knowledge from team to team, or from person to person. This represents a focus on knowledge transfer through conversation (particularly dialogue).  Transfer of lessons can be through conversations in contexts such as Peer Assist and Knowledge Handover.  There are more posts on this blog about the use of dialogue in knowledge transfer. These techniques have nothing to do with documents, and the conversations may never be documented.


  4. Learning from Experience. This represents a focus on discussing and assimilating knowledge from activity and from projects. It focuses as much on the creation and application/embedding of the lessons as on their management as content. This is a combination of identifying and externalising knowledge through processes such as After Action review and Retrospect, and then the management of the lessons so identified.  A series of posts on this blog, and the Knoco website Lesson Learned page, provide a whole set of guidance on effective lesson learning, which remains knowledge management’s Number 2 core tool, at least for project based organisations. This is not a document management discipline either.


  5. Knowledge retention. This represents a focus on retaining, and transferring to others, tacit knowledge from experts which might otherwise be at risk of loss. The tacit knowledge may be documented, although much of the knowledge transfer may happen through conversational processes such as mentoring and coaching. Several posts on this blog, and the Knoco website Retention page, provide a whole set of guidance on knowledge retention, which remains a core tool for knowledge management, at least for organisations with mature workforces. Knowledge Retention is also not an information management discipline.


  6. Combination of knowledge from multiple sources. This represents a focus on comparing knowledge from many sources (people and documents), and synthesising the best possible knowledge for given contexts, which can then be standardised across the organisation. This may be a best practice approach to a task, or a best design for a product component. Think of the Pilot’s Checklist – in use in all airlines – as an example of such “Best Practice”. This blog, and the Knoco website Knowledge Asset page, provides a whole set of guidance on knowledge synthesis and best practices, which remain core tools for KM. Although knowledge can be combined from multiple documents, this is not a document management discipline as it apples to the contents of the documents, and not the documents themselves.


  7. Innovation. This focuses on the creation of new knowledge, when old knowledge is not longer sufficient. This blog contains guidance on Innovation, which is a KM tool and not an IM tool.
So there is much more to KM than the organisation and retrieval of documents. If documents are your current KM focus, then try adding some or all of the approaches above. Your KM program will be all the richer for it. 

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Better informed, but none the wiser (and what this phrase implies for KM)

The difference between knowledge and information can be summed up in this phrase.

Do you know the saying “I am better informed, but none the wiser?  It effectively means “I have extra information but do not know what it means nor what to do with it”.

The phrase has entered common English usage, but originally comes from the statesman, lawyer, orator, and friend of Churchill, Frederick Edwin Smith, 1st Earl of Birkenhead, as part of this courtroom exchange;

Judge: I’ve listened to you for an hour and I’m none the wiser.
Smith: None the wiser, perhaps, my lord but certainly better informed. 

For me, this exchange marks a crucial difference between information management and knowledge management.

The accumulation of information makes an organisation better informed, but without the accumulation of knowledge they cannot make the next step towards wisdom, because they do not know what to do with the information they have gathered..

Ultimately organisations need information, and they need that information to be ordered and stored and shared and accessible. That’s Information Management.

They also need knowledge – they need know-how – they need to know what that information means, and how to deal with it.

Knowledge management therefore involves review,collective sense-making and the derivation of shared understanding and shared heuristics and rules. Knowledge management is less about accumulation than it is about synthesis; less about information than about understanding and decision making. It is the understanding that needs to be created and shared, which then makes the information actionable.

Let us make sure that, though a combination of Information Management and Knowledge Management, that our organisations are both better informed and more knowledgeable, and therefore wiser.

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Why "knowledge management" is not an oxymoron

One of the arguments against the term “Knowledge Management” is that knowledge is an intangible and cannot be managed, therefore “Knowledge Management” is an oxymoron

Some thoughts about ROI tangible and intangible benefits
Photo from Flickr
It wasn’t Einstein that said this quote, it was
William Bruce Cameron in 1963, but its still a good quote

The argument is that knowledge is personal and context specific, and is not an object in it’s own right – not something that can be weighed and measured and counted – so how can it be managed? According to this argument, “Knowledge Management” is said to be an oxymoron because knowledge is an “intangible object”.

However the management of intangibles is common practice in the business world.
For example

  • Risk management
  • Safety Management
  • Customer Relationship management
  • Brand management
  • Reputation management
  • Environmental management; 

All of these are established disciplines which make up part of good management practice in many businesses, and are concerned with intangibles. Safety, Relationships – these are personal and not objects in their own right. You can’t touch or weigh a reputation or a risk.

Is Knowledge Management any different? Why is Safety Management a valid term for example, while Knowledge Management is an oxymoron? Surely an accident is not an object you can manage?

I think part of the problem is that we tend to look at the management term in the wrong way.

Risk Management does not mean that a risk is an object that can be managed — many risks are completely unmanageable. Instead it means putting in place a framework where decisions are made, and actions are taken, so the impact of risk is minimised. It means “Managing with attention to risk“. It means changing the way people work and think so that they treat Risk as something important which needs to be addressed and not ignored.

Similarly, Safety Management means putting in place a framework where actions are taken, and behaviours put in place, so that the workplace becomes safer.  It means “Managing with attention to safety“.

Similarly Knowledge Management does not mean “the management of knowledge”. Instead, it means putting in place a framework where expectations are set, actions are taken, and behaviours are put in place and sustained, to maximise the value of the know-how of the organisation. It means changing the way people work and think so that they treat Risk as something important which needs to be addressed and not ignored. It means “Management with attention to knowledge”.

If we see Knowledge Management as one more “Intangible Management System”, then it allows us to learn from the other systems; to see how they are introduced and sustained. And if we look at risk management, safety management, quality management etc. it quickly becomes clear that implementing these disciplines is, more than anything, about attention, mindfulness and prioritisation.

The companies that have made breakthroughs in safety management know that it is about paying attention to safety, being mindful of safety, and prioritising safety throughout daily work. Similarly quality management is about paying attention to quality, being mindful of quality, and prioritising quality throughout daily work.

The same is true of Knowledge Management.

Like other intangibles, Knowledge Management is about attention and priority. It’s how you manage, when you realise the importance of Knowledge.

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Why definitions of knowledge and Km should avoid using the word "information"

This blog post is a reprise and a rewrite of one I have posted before, and which always drives comment and discussion, but is worth revisiting for a newer audience. 

Definition of definition by dustin.askins

It covers the difference between Knowledge and Information – that perennial topic of debate – and therefore the difference between KM and IM.  This debate is often driven by assumptions, those assumptions can influence definitions if you are not careful, and definitions can set the scope of your KM work.

It is an open debate how closely knowledge is linked to information, and therefore how valid constructs such as the DIK pyramid are.

 If you define Knowledge as something based on Information (“knowledge is information plus context”, “Knowledge is information that allows us to take action”, “knowledge is information plus processing”) then you are already making an assumption about the link between the two.  This assumption of a link leads to a second assumption that you manage knowledge in the same way as information – through libraries, databases, information bases, knowledge bases, or repositories.

Personally I think there is an equally valid set of assumptions;

  1. that knowledge is something you APPLY to information in order to be able to interpret information (see also Drucker’s point that information only becomes knowledge in the heads of knowledgeable people); 
  2. that knowledge is more closely related to understanding and to insight than to information. 
  3. that knowledge is a function of experience more than it is a function of information, and it is that experience that allows you to handle and interpret information, and to make information actionable (see picture below); 

The three assumptions above lead you to a view that the majority of knowledge is carried by people, and lives in heads and in networks, rather than in libraries, databases, information bases, knowledge bases, or repositories.

The fact that the relationship between information and knowledge is fuzzy and open to alternative views and assumptions suggests that definitions of knowledge should not be based on information, but should stand alone. That is why (or partly why) the ISO 30401:2018 definition of knowledge is “a human or organizational asset enabling effective decisions and action in context”. No use of the term Information here. 
If we separate out knowledge from information, then we can also separate Knowledge Management from Information Management. 
Management of knowledge therefore becomes as much or more about the management of people and their interaction, than it becomes about the management of files and documents.  People can interact through documents, and (arguably) documents can carry knowledge, but (as suggested here) Knowledge Management is about the content of the documents – the knowledge held within the documents – and Information Management is about management of the documents themselves (the containers of the knowledge).

Unless you assume that knowledge and information are synonymous, then definitions of KM that refer primarily to information are not definitions of knowledge management.

As an example, the current default definition that pops up on my Google results for knowledge management is “efficient handling of information and resources within a commercial organization”. This to me is a definition of commercial information (and resource) management, not KM. Similarly the Wikpedia definition “the process of creating, sharing, using and managing the knowledge and information of an organisation” is a definition of “Knowledge and Information Management” (a hybrid discipline some organisations apply).

ISO 30401:2018 takes a different approach, defining KM as “Management with regard to knowledge” (where knowledge is defined as above). This neatly focuses the topic, and reminds us that KM is not “the management of knowledge” but “knowledge-focused management” – a crucial difference.

In all of this we must remember that the English Language is deficient in this regard, and uses one word for Knowledge while other languages have two.  This lack of nuance is at the root of much of the confusion.

So if you want to avoid putting assumptions into your definition (always a good thing to avoid!), then my suggestion is to avoid any definitions of Knowledge which include the word Information.  To mix the two is to blur the boundaries between KM and IM, to ignore the 5 main differences between the two, and to risk ending up looking only at the management of documents and online content.

Be clear, in order to avoid confusing the disciplines. 

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2 types of knowing – awareness and acquaintance

Acquaintance requires experience, but KM can accelerate the gaining of experience

If someone asked you “do you know Nick Milton”, what would you answer?

You might say “I know the name”, or you might say “I have read his blog”, but the chances are that you would not  say “Yes, I know Nick” unless we had met, or at least talked.

There are shades of knowing – degrees of knowing – from awareness of someone, to acquaintance with them, but generally you would not say you “knew” someone without having met them (in British English, we say “made their acquaintance”).

Similarly, if I asked you “do you know Amsterdam” you might say “Yes – it is a large city in the Netherlands” or “I know where it is”, or even “I went there once for a weekend” but you would not say “I know Amsterdam” without having stayed there for a while and become acquainted with the city.

With people and with places (and with many other topics) we do not claim “knowledge” without acquaintance-ship, and without experience. We are talking here about deep knowledge – understanding – familiarity. We are talking about intimate knowledge.

It is this deep knowledge which is the most valuable asset to an organisation. Deep knowledge goes beyond knowledge as a series of facts, or knowledge as a compiled set of information, to the knowledge worker’s true knowledge of their role and of the business processes. The sort of knowledge like “never visit that client on a Monday morning – she’s going through a divorce, and her weekends are traumatic”, or “before you drive down that track to check the outstation, always call the landowner first, or she will follow you with a shotgun”, or “that compressor always runs hot for the first 30 minutes, then settles down nicely”. Intimate knowledge that allows you to operate effectively, and efficiently. Knowledge that is on the way to Mastery.

If deep knowledge requires acquaintance – requires experience – then how can knowledge management help transfer deep knowledge to people before they have any experience?

  • Firstly, you can prepare them in advance.

I am sure you have had conversations where people meet you for the first time, and say “I have heard so much about you – I feel I already know you”.

That knowledge will not be perfect, but because of the stories they have heard, they have “made your acquaintance” in proxy, though the stories, before making it in person. They are halfway to knowing you. We can do the same at work – we can share the work stories and the “war stories”, so that people become acquainted in proxy before they start the work. Through Peer Assists, through Communities of Practice, by sharing Lessons and Experiences, we can prepare others.

  • Secondly, you can share the experts’ experience and acquaintanceship, to accelerate others’ learning curves.

If I am travelling to Amsterdam for a week, one of the most valuable things I can take with me is a good guidebook, written by someone who really knows the city. The author will share their knowledge of the city with me, and help me accelerate my own knowledge of Amsterdam. The book gives me shallow knowledge – “knowledge about” Amsterdam – but helps me gain my deep knowledge much faster.  Similarly at work we can compile the knowledge assets that act as the reference and the fast-start for people.

  • Thirdly, you can work with a mentor.

If I really want to get a head start in developing a deep knowledge of Amsterdam, I spend a few days with a local, who can show me the ins and outs of the city, takes me to all the secret spots, the hidden gems and the great restaurants where the tourists never go. Through sharing his or her deep knowledge, I become acquainted with Amsterdam much more rapidly, and my own knowledge deepens quickly. At work we can build the communities of practice that allow people to mentor each other informally, we can define the process owners who act as the “tour guides” for their topics, and we can develop more formal mentoring and dedicated learning programs.

Deep knowledge requires acquaintance and experience, but Knowledge Management can help with the preparation for, and acquisition of, deep knowledge. KM need not just be about presentation of facts, it can be about developing an acquaintance as well.

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My favourite definition of Knowledge Management

A simple but effective definition of KM

I was moved to reprise this video, from 2009, in which I offered a simple definition of KM, because I was very pleased to see the same definition appearing in a speech this week by by Director Dr Haji Mohd Zamri bin Haji Sabli in Borneo.

The definition is

“‘Knowledge Management is the way we manage our organisation when we understand the value of knowledge’.


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A new way to look at knowledge and information

The relationship between knowledge and information has always been problematical. Here is a new way to look at it.

The Data/Information/Knowledge/Wisdom pyramid is a very common diagram in the KM world, but despite its ubiquity and simplicity it has many problems:
Why don’t we set the DIKW pyramid aside, and set aside the assumption that information and knowledge are somehow two mutually exclusive classes of the same sort of thing, and play with the idea that maybe information and knowledge are different sorts of thing. 
We can then draw a diagram such as the one below, dividing the world into Knowledge/Not Knowledge and Information/Not Information

At the top of this diagram are things that are Knowledge, and on the right are things that are Information. This gives us 4 quadrants.

  • Top left is Knowledge that is not Information. Here is Tacit knowledge; the things you know without realising. Also Implicit Knowledge (if you use that term) – the things you know and can express but have not yet expressed, or recorded, or documented.
  • Top right is Knowledge that is also Information. This is documented or codified knowledge – documents that transfer knowledge; that teach, instruct, advise, educate, and otherwise give people the ability to act. They contain the things you would say if you were to express your tacit knowledge. Here are your recipes, your tips and hints, your guidance notes, training material, best practices, standard operating procedures and checklists. 
  • Bottom right is Information that is not Knowledge. Here are records and documents that do not teach, instruct, advise, or educate. Here are minutes of meetings, or invoices, or contracts. 
  • Bottom left is everything else. Data sits in this box, but so do clouds and kittens and rocks.

Does this diagram work?

To test whether it works, try an analogy. Instead of Knowledge, write Music. You then have the 4 quadrants of “Music but not Information” which includes performed music, or music you hear in your head, “Music and Information” which includes sheet music as well as the files in your iPod, “Information but not music” which includes records and other sorts of files, and “Everything else”.
There is a philosophical argument that Music is not Music until it is performed or played, and that in recorded form it is information containing a sort of “potential music”  (much as a battery contains potential energy), but this is unhelpful as it is, for sure, a specific type of information dedicated to the transmission of music. 
There is an identical philosophical argument that Knowledge is not Knowledge until it is held by a human, and that in recorded form it is information containing a sort of “potential knowledge”  (much as a battery contains potential energy), but this is unhelpful as it is, for sure, a specific type of information dedicated to the transmission of Knowledge.

Is this diagram helpful?

The diagram is helpful when it comes to mapping out the limits of Knowledge Management and Information Management, as shown in the diagram below.
Knowledge Management covers the top two boxes of the diagram, ensuring that the content of the knowledge and the conversations around this content are clear, accurate, comprehensive, valid, and helpful, and that this knowledge is accessible to those who need it, in the form they need it, and at the place and time they need it. 

Information Management covers the two right hand boxes, ensuring that the Information is structured, stored, owned, tagged, findable and retrievable.

In the top right hand box, documented knowledge is managed by both disciplines. Knowledge Management addresses the contents of the documents, while Information Management covers the containers – the documents and files themselves. Information Management and Knowledge Management are not mutually exclusive disciplines, they are overlapping disciplines.

I think that last point is the most valuable outcome of looking at information and knowledge in this different way; the point that Information Management and Knowledge Management are complementary and overlapping, that they overlap in the realm where knowledge is also information and information is also knowledge (even though you might argue it is Potential Knowledge), and that they manage this area in different ways.

With this view point we can avoid some of the dualistic and mechanistic thinking of the past, and start to understand how these two disciplines interact.

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A key point in the difference between knowledge and information

I have often used this story as a way to distinguish knowledge and information, but here are a few more points:

map courtesy of NASA

I like to illustrate the difference between Information and Knowledge, with a story or an example.

Let’s take the example of a geological map of mineral data, which you might use to site a gold mine.

Each point or pixel on the map is a datum – a mineral sample point, with a location in space. 

The map itself is information; built up from the data points in such a way that it shows patterns which can be interpreted by a trained geologist. 

However, to interpret that map requires knowledge. I could not interpret it – I am not a mining geologist – and unless you are a mining geologist, you could not interpret it either. The knowledge – the know-how, acquired through training and through experience – allows a mining geologist to interpret the map and come to a decision – to site a gold-mine, to take more samples, or to declare the area worthless. 

In this example, the data, the information and the knowledge come together to form a decision, but the ignorant person, the person with no knowledge, could never make that correct decision.

The key point in the story is this;

The mining geologist applies their knowledge in order to interpret the information. It is the knowledge which makes the information actionable.

I know there are quite a few people who define knowledge as “actionable information”, but that’s not quite right. It is the knowledge that makes the information actionable.

Knowledge + Information = Action.

That’s the key disctinction between Knowledge and Information, right there.

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