What is Knowledge?

Knowledge is a very slippery concept with many different variations and definitions, each of which is valid in its own right. The nature of knowledge and what it means to know something are epistemological questions that have perplexed philosophers for centuries and no resolution looms on the horizon.

According to Webster’s Dictionary, knowledge is “the fact or condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association”. In practice, though, there are many possible, equally plausible definitions of knowledge. A frequently used definition of knowledge is “the ideas or understandings which an entity possesses that are used to take effective action to achieve the entity’s goal(s). This knowledge is specific to the entity which created it.”

There are two basic kinds of knowledge in an Organization: Explicit and Tacit.

Explicit knowledge is knowledge that has been articulated and, more often than not, captured in the form of text, tables, diagrams, product specifications and so on. According to a Harvard Business Review article titled “The Knowledge Creating Company”, explicit knowledge is referred to as “formal and systematic” and examples include product specifications, scientific formulas and computer programs. An example of explicit knowledge with which we are all familiar is the formula for finding the area of a rectangle (i.e., length times width). Other examples of explicit knowledge include documented best practices, the formalised standards by which an insurance claim is adjudicated and the official expectations for performance set forth in written work objectives. Thus explicit knowledge is systematically documented know-how that becomes available to everyone in the organization.

Tacit knowledge is knowledge that cannot be articulated. Tacit knowledge is the “know how” possessed by individuals. It’s often intuitive and demonstrated more in how someone goes about his/her work in a knowledgeable way, even though this knowledge is not written down anywhere. Of course, one of the goals of knowledge management is to make tacit knowledge more widely available and to the degree possible, capture it in explicit terms. Tacit knowledge resides in a few, often-in just one person and has not been captured by the organization or made available to others. It is this tacit knowledge that provides strategic edge to the organization. Typically tacit knowledge is asked for and transferred in non-formal situations and so it is extremely difficult to record it.

Data and information are the essential components of Knowledge Management but are totally different entities. Knowledge often gets mixed up with data and information and creates problems. The understanding of these three distinct concepts is therefore equally important.

Data can be broadly defined as a collection of facts, ‘facts’ about specific events and about an industry in general. These facts can originate from a variety of sources and includes such items as raw statistics, demographic and marketing information, and so forth. Data can form the basis of knowledge, as it is gathered, analysed, and synthesized by individuals within an organization.

Information, which is sometimes referred to as ‘explicit knowledge’, results from the collection and communication of ideas and experiences. Information is usually codified into documents, e-mail, voice mail, and other forms of communication, which can be easily shared between individuals. It is explicit precisely because it has been ‘written down in some format, and it is useful because it can be stored and reused to avoid the duplication of work and the repetition of mistakes.’

Knowledge, however, transcends both data and information in that it comprises ideas, experiences, and insights themselves. For this reason, true knowledge is often referred to as ‘tacit knowledge.’ Knowledge also represents the intelligence that individuals apply to data and information to draw conclusions and to make decisions. Without intelligence, information cannot become knowledge. Therefore, it is the possession of knowledge, along with intelligence and the ability to create new knowledge, which determines an individual’s value to a business. Thus knowledge is not just an explicit tangible “thing”, like information, but information combined with experience, context, interpretation and reflection. Knowledge involves the full person, integrating the elements of both thinking and feeling.

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