A first step to knowledge management

After several years working in knowledge management, I found that a common question by my colleagues has been “is this report ‘knowledge’?”. To answer properly to this seemingly simple question requires to have clear idea of the concepts we are dealing with
and whatever answer we give will determine the conceptual structure of knowledge management (KM). Here I will try to deepen on my proposed definition of knowledge and briefly share my view on its consequences in how corporate KM can be structured.
Defining what is knowledge is not only necessary for its theoretical interest, but also due to the not-so-visible pragmatic value of such an endeavour. In particular, when the interest lays on promoting KM as a corporate practice, setting the boundaries between what falls inside of the concept of knowledge is both beneficial and necessary for a variety of reasons: to define what to address specifically in knowledge management; to narrow down which activities to carry out that would constitute KM, alongside with the needed roles and responsibilities; to grant effective communication among all stakeholders and to facilitate the creation of key performance indicators for a proper measurement of the effectiveness of KM activities.

[In the post "The knowledge argument", I introduce my view of a possible definition of knowledge as a qualia]

In his renown book “The Tacit Dimension”, Polanyi claims that “we can know more than we can tell”, defining the gap of what we know minus what we can tell as the tacit knowledge. He then goes on to explain the four aspects of tacit knowing, that is, the functional, phenomenal, semantic and ontological, which are different versions of our knowing of something implicitly tied to just being aware of its more perceptible or salient effects. It is mostly relevant for this article that, as defined by Polanyi, tacit knowledge leaves room to apply what I have called the phenomenal definition of knowledge by making reference to a mental state.
Similarly, Bertrand Russell’s attempt to describe mental phenomena (“Mysticism and Logic”) is also relevant:

I do not know how to give a sharp definition of the word "mental," but something may be done by enumerating occurrences which are indubitably mental: believing, doubting, wishing, willing, being pleased or pained, are certainly mental occurrences; so are what we may call experiences, seeing, hearing, smelling, perceiving generally.

I believe that we can include knowing in the same category as the mental phenomena that Russel describes above. That is, we could easily add knowing together with believing, doubting, wishing, etc. and it would raise no doubts about its fitting there.
The term knowledge usually conflates many meanings applied in different contexts. Some people would say that knowledge is only in people’s heads, some that it is also in the documents and yet some would assert that only certain documents contain knowledge.
Because of this variety of concepts, speaking of knowledge management easily leads to confusion on the boundary problem, that is, what falls within and without KM.
My claim here is that we can better define what knowledge management is and operate with it more consistently and efficiently in the corporate arena if we follow these steps:
  1. Define knowledge as something purely mental.
  2. Define the means that trigger knowledge in an individual as the knowledge sources.
  3. Define what corporate knowledge is.
  4. Identify knowledge management as the activities that elicit the mental state of knowledge in a person. This takes into account the available knowledge sources and activities to use them efficiently to improve the corporate knowledge.
To comply with point 1, an elegant, simple and suitable definition is this one I learned from the Knowledge Management Institute in their Certified Knowledge Manager programme, which I call the phenomenal definition of knowledge:
Knowledge is understanding, gained through analysis, experience or sharing

The understanding can be seen as the access to the truth of whatever facts. When you say you understand something it is because you have access to a certain truth. And as we know, this process is subjective by its nature. This gives us the necessary mental definition as outlined in point 1 above.
The knowledge sources mentioned in point 2 can be defined as the materials or events that trigger understanding in the individual, in whatever format they are presented. Though they vary greatly, one could include here reports, analysis, lectures, training courses, etc. and they are the objects that are analyzed, experienced or shared, according to the phenomenal definition of knowledge.
This gives us a clear distinction between knowledge as understanding and the resources or activities triggering that understanding. However thin the line is between the subjective understanding and the resource that triggers it, the conceptual difference still holds. For instance, if I read a well described report on the causes of failure of certain system, I will immediately understand the issue at hand, in the most subjective sense: I will be aware of the truths described in there. In this case, a document has triggered my understanding in accordance with the internalization process that Nonaka and Takeuchi mentioned in their SECI cycle.
Since pretty much everything in an organization is subject to be a knowledge source, we want to dedicate our efforts on working with the elements that bring value to the organization if used properly by the employees.
For that, following point 3, we need to narrow down what is useful by defining corporate knowledge as the underlying ability of an organization to produce value and is necessary for it to realize its strategic goals. This is different from knowledge as the mental ability of an individual, however, corporate knowledge is a function of the personal one, an emergent quality by putting together different individuals. That is, given the right cultural environment in an organization, we can state that the more relevant knowledge the employees obtain, the better the corporate knowledge (a deeper analysis on that seems due, however, I will leave that discussion for another moment), which would increase the ability of the organization to produce value in alignment with its purpose.
Finally, following point 4 we are now prepared to define knowledge management as the activities to ensure that the flow of the knowledge sources to employees is relevant to the creation and improvement of corporate knowledge. In other words, KM is about enabling the understanding of the relevant business topics by the employees. Here I propose that knowledge management be defined as:
The set of activities to develop employee’s personal knowledge that will bring the organization closer to its corporate knowledge goals.

Identifying which is this set of activities is key to any successful KM programme, and of course, it will vary depending on the organization. However, with the definitions we have described, we can already advance an initial split of KM-related work in the following categories:
  • Activities to identify the necessary corporate knowledge.
    • This will mostly entail the identification of the core business processes, measurement via key performance indicators or identification of knowledge gaps.
  • Activities to identify, capture, store and make available the relevant knowledge sources.
    • This is mostly comprised by taxonomy management, expert identification, knowledge capture, information management, documents and records management, configuration management, search engine development and other disciplines in the domain of externalization and combination in the SECI model.
  • Activities to elicit understanding in the individual by using the identified sources of knowledge
    • This is related to training, competency management, knowledge handover and transfer activities, lectures and awareness sessions, and other activities to internalize and or socialize as per the SECI model.
In conclusion, given the phenomenal definition of knowledge, the answer to the original question “is this report ‘knowledge’?” must be now clear. In the sense of knowledge as a mental experience, as understanding, the answer is no. Knowledge, as a subjective event is by definition not included in any written or digital means because there is no understanding happening in a report or whatever other explicit information. A report is an example of a knowledge source, which may fall within the scope of knowledge management if its assimilation by the employes contributes in any relevant way to further the corporate knowledge, and hence improving the organization's added value.


“The tacit dimension”, by Michael Polanyi

Materials of the course “Certified Knowledge Manager” by the Knowledge Management Institute

“The Knowledge-Creating Company”, by Nonaka and Takeuchi

“Mysticism and Logic - And Other Essays”, by Bertrand Russell

Image by Pixabay

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