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.
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
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
Customer Relationship 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.
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.
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;
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.
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.
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.
It implies wisdom is somehow part of the same family as data and information, and it isn’t. Wisdom is more of a virtue or a spiritual quality, and not amenable to management discipline.
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.
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.
Can we use the term “knowledge sharing” as better replacement for the term “Knowledge Management? There are two good reasons not to do so.
image from Wikimedia Commons
The terminology debate continues to rumble on in the KM world, with many people preferring the term “knowledge sharing” over the term “knowledge management”. This is partly due to a distrust of the concept of management, or use of the “management” term especially when used in conjunction with the word Knowledge.
As Tom Davenport wrote in his article “Does Management mean Command and Control?”
“I have a problem with overly simplistic characterizations of knowledge management, and management more generally. …. The term “management” is apparently a synonym for “command and control,” and we know that’s bad. “Command and control” is top-down, mean and nasty, and headed for extinction; “sharing” is bottom-up, nice and friendly, and the wave of the future. Maybe the Yale School of Management, for example, should become the Yale School of Sharing”. (However)…if your organization really cares about creating, distributing (I’m sorry–“sharing”), and applying knowledge, you need to manage it”.
But irrespective of whether you think Management equates to Command and Control or not, there are still 2 good reasons why you cannot replace “Knowledge Management” with “Knowledge Sharing”.
Firstly, sharing is not the end of the process of knowledge transfer and application.
There is a common misconception that sharing is the be-all and end-all; that people should first Capture and then Share their knowledge (and Sharing is often taken as meaning posting a document into a repository), and that this constitutes an effective transfer of knowledge.
However KM does not work like that. KM is not about one person with knowledge making it available to others; transferring knowledge as if you were transferring a can of beans from one person to another as in the image above. Knowledge is not transferred, it is co-created.
Once knowledge is shared, as a post on a discussion forum, a lesson in a lesson management system or a comment on a wiki, then it can be questioned, tested, combined with knowledge from other sources, and synthesised into new and better knowledge through discussion and dialogue. After sharing comes synthesis.
And after synthesis comes re-use. Even if knowledge is captured, and shared, and synthesised into up-to-date, valuable reference material, it still adds no value unless someone looks for it, finds it, and re-uses it.
All to often a “knowledge sharing” approach is strong on capture of knowledge, strong on some form of sharing (usually by publishing in a public repository), but weak or absent on synthesis and re-use.
Secondly, sharing deals only with supply and not with demand.
The common approached to knowledge sharing, and to the development of a “knowledge sharing culture” tend to focus only on the supply of knowledge. They assume knowledge will be captured and shared, creating a constant supply of new knowledge, and that this is enough.
In fact knowledge seeking is actually a better place to start than knowledge sharing (even though both are needed as part of a Knowledge Management Framework). Seeking stimulates sharing, and as McKinsey found, “direct requests for help between colleagues drive 75 to 90 percent of all the help exchanged within organizations“.
You could draw the whole knowledge cycle from a seeking point of view if you want – starting with seeking, then finding, reviewing, synthesising with existing knowledge, and applying, rather than starting with capture and sharing – which can give you a different way to look at KM.
Knowledge Management is therefore much more than knowledge sharing.
Knowledge Management includes Knowledge Sharing, as well as Knowledge Creation, Knowledge Capture, Knowledge Synthesis, Knowledge re-use, Knowledge seeking, Knowledge finding, and so on. To focus only on Knowledge Sharing is to underestimate the topic, and runs the risk of creating only a partial solution.
Beware of a focus only Knowledge Sharing. Focus on Knowledge Management instead.
The Army talk about building up lessons through Observations and Insights. But what do these terms mean?
Lesson learning is one area where Industry can learn from the Military. Military lesson learning can be literally a matter of life and death, so lesson learning is well developed and well understood in military organisations.
The Military see a progression in the extraction and development of lessons – from Observations to Insights to Lessons – and we see a similar progression within the questioning process in After Action Reviews and Retrospects.
On Slide 7 of this interesting presentation, given by Geoff Cooper, a senior analyst at the Australian Centre for Army Lessons Learned, at the recent 8th International Lessons Learned Conference, we have a set of definitions for these terms, which are very useful.
They read as follows (my additions in brackets)
Observation. The basic building block [for learning] from a discrete perspective.
Many are subjective in nature, but provide unique insights into human experience.
Need to contain sufficient context to allow correct interpretation and understanding.
Offer recommendations from the source
[they should be] Categorised to speed retrieval and analysis
Insight. The conclusion drawn from an identified pattern of observations pertaining to a common experience or theme.
Link differing perspectives and observations, where they exist.
Indicate recommendations, not direct actions,
Link solid data to assist decision making processes
As insights relay trends, they can be measures
Lesson. Incorporates an insight, but adds specific action and the appropriate technical authority.
Lesson Learned. When a desired behaviour or effect is sustained, preferably without external influence.
What Geoff is describing is a typical military approach to lesson-learning, where a lessons team collects many observations from Army personnel, performs analysis, and identified the Insight and Lesson. As I pointed out in this post, this is different from the typical Engineering Project approach, where the project team compare observations, derive their own insight, and draft their own lesson.
The difference between the two approaches depends on the scale of the exercise. In the military model there can be hundreds of people who contribute observations, while in a project, it’s usually a much smaller project team (in which case it makes sense to collect the observations and insights through discussion). If you are using the military model, these definitions will be very useful.
To mark the return of this blog after a short hiatus, here is another popular post from the past, first published 5 years ago.
The knowledge management world is large and complex, with many different understandings of what the term means, and what it encompasses.
Here is a first-pass map of the Knowledge Management Landscape, and some of the nooks, crannies, islands and archipelagos that make up that landscape.
Or if you prefer, the 50 shades within the KM rainbow.
Lets start down the data end, where the knowledge management landscape meets the border with data management. KM’s interest in data comes from combining data through linked data, and looking for the patterns within data, though data mining, so that new insights can be gained. Where this is applied to customer data or business data, then we get into the analogous disciplines of CRM and Business Intelligence.
Next to data comes Information, where knowledge management is involved in several ways. For example the structuring of information, through classification systems (taxonomies, ontologies, folksonomies)or information tagging. Or else the retrieval of information, where knowledge management encompasses enterprise search, semantic search, expert systems and artificial intelligence. Or the presentation of information, through intranets, or portals, supported by content management. The presentation of information, as well as the creation of explicit “knowledge objects” is an important component of customer-centric knowledge management, closely allied to the creation of customer knowledge bases and the use of knowledge centred support. Knowledge based engineering is a discipline where engineering design is done based on knowledge models.
The creation of explicit knowledge is a significant part of the KM world, containing many shades of its own. Knowledge retention deals with capture of knowledge from retiring staff aka Knowledge Harvesting), lessons management deals with learning from projects, as do learning histories based on multiple interviews.
Another part of the landscape is the organisational learning corner. This abuts the border with learning and development, but is concerned with learning of the organisation, rather than learning of the individual. In this part of the KM world we find action learning, business-driven action learning, and lesson-learning, plus analogous disciplines such as e-learning, coaching, and mentoring.
Organisational learning abuts the area of knowledge transfer, where we look at dialogue-based processes such as peer assist, knowledge handover, knowledge cafe, baton-passing, after action review, appreciative enquiry, and so on – processes that are focused on knowledge, but are closely allied to other meeting disciplines.
Knowledge transfer between people – the tacit area, or experience management, takes us into the area of networking. Here we find thecommunities of practice, the centres of excellence, the communities of interest, and the social networks. The latter, of course, is closely allied to social media – social media being the technology which supports social networks. Then we have storytelling, as a means of knowledge transfer, crowdsourcing, as a means of accessing knowledge from a wide source, and collaboration as a sort of catch-all term (supported by collaborative technology).
There is a whole innovation area to KM as well – open innovation, creativity, deep-dives etc
The finally we have the more psychological end of knowledge management, where we have disciplines such as epistemology, sense-making, complexity theory, decision-making theory.
Plus of course the part of knowledge management that deals with the lone worker – personal knowledge management.
So there are our 50+ shades of knowledge management – if I have missed any, please let me know through the comments option!