Information and knowledge: is there a difference?
One of the considerations that trips up people doing KM is a lack of clarity about information and knowledge and their differences. Although a great deal has been written on questions like, is there a difference and, if so, does it really matter, the responses, unfortunately, often generate more heat than light. While they are philosophical, these questions are also intensely practical, because how you answer them shapes not only the way you think about KM, but also how you practice it.4 To individuals who treat information and knowledge as interchangeable, the main purpose of KM, typically, is to provide employees with access to the right technical information. When they see knowledge and information as different, however, recognizing that people collaborate to get things done, the object of KM first and foremost is to create an environment where colleagues can readily share their knowledge with one another. In the former case, KM usually falls under IT; while, in the latter, instead of being subsumed under IT, KM may be the responsibility of a group in human resources or organization development.
Steering clear of philosophical debate about what knowledge is and how people acquire it, I will explain briefly why knowledge and information are different, although they are closely related in a symbiotic way. Anything you regard as information informs – so, is useful – because you can and do place the material in the context of what you already know. Information ‘fits’ your (pre-existing) understanding. If something is beyond your knowledge and comprehension it is non-sense; it cannot inform.5
Knowledge is what you, or other people, know. If you have children you have knowledge about them: their ages, their likes and dislikes, their personalities, and so on. If you are a materials fabricator, you probably know what it takes to bend and cut and how to join metals and composites. Some of this you’ve probably acquired from books, the web, or from talking to colleagues.
It is common, nowadays, to distinguish between two types of knowledge: explicit, in the form of principles, theories, and facts about the world, lots of which fall under the heading ‘technical knowledge’; and tacit, acquired largely from experience. These are sometimes referred to, respectively, as ‘know what’ (explicit) and ‘know how’ (tacit). I know about the tensile strength of metals and the number of instructions a microprocessor is capable of handling every second and I know that the Empire State Building is 450 meters high, even though I’ve never experienced (seen) these directly. ‘Know-how’ implies an ability to get things done and to deal with problems or issues. I know how my children respond to different situations, I know how to jump-start a car, and I know how to stay upright on a bicycle without having to think about it.
It is also widely acknowledged that most of what we know is tacit and, among KM practitioners, there a fairly widely held belief that it is desirable, as well as practical, to turn tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge. Once ‘captured,’ they argue, it can be transferred to others (who will be able to access it as information) (Nonaka and Konno, 1998; Nonaka and Toyama, 2003). Organizations, concerned about protecting their ‘intellectual capital,’ for example, are prompted by consultants to prevent useful knowledge ‘walking out of the door’ when employees resign or retire. They may then go to considerable lengths and incur significant costs to capture the knowledge of retirees, gained from years of experience on the job, then make it available to others
There are several reasons why, rather than rushing to embrace them, these kinds of initiatives, that include transferring knowledge in the form of lessons learned from people in one project team to another, should be treated with some skepticism and approached with caution. One reason is the growing recognition that tacit and explicit knowledge are different types of knowledge. It isn’t practical to turn one into the other. Each is important and useful in its own way and they are complementary, not substitutes (Cook and Brown, 1999). There are also question marks over the knowledge that organizations manage to capture. Is it useful to others – either contemporaries or future generations – and, if so, in what form and under what circumstances?
The problem is that knowledge always has a context and you can’t take it from its original context – the varied circumstances and life-experiences of the knowers – and put it into files or databases without it losing at least some of its meaning. One way to understand this problem is to consider how difficult it is to explain to someone who has never experienced a different culture how natives of the culture express their feelings. This is the kind of tacit knowledge you acquire through experience. You can explain to a stranger ‘facts of the situation,’ for example what people say and do when they greet one another, but this doesn’t allow him or her to ‘get’ the culture. To know it, they have to experience for it for themselves, by participating in it.6
To clarify my position on the difficulty of capturing and transferring knowledge, it is time to return to the distinction between information and knowledge. There are many situations where people need and – as long as someone provides it – can acquire information that helps them either to do something they otherwise could not do, or to become more proficient at doing it. If they already have a common context of technical and other know how, doctors, engineers, lawyers, software developers, plumbers, or musicians can learn a lot from the information in instructions or other documents created by colleagues. But, with different backgrounds or fundamentally different experiences – when they have different ways of knowing and have to find common ground in order to proceed, when they have to discover what is going on, what others mean or intend, or what to do, when, and with whom – people’s ability and willingness to collaborate and make sense of the situation (coming to understand it) together is paramount. Now, sharing knowledge takes priority over ‘transferring information’. The information they can access is, at this point, less important than their ability to ‘find a way forward’ together.
In contrast to knowledge, which people possess – they ‘have knowledge,’ think of information as ‘out there’ on websites, in databases, on menus, and in instruction manuals and blueprints. What was once someone’s knowledge in the form of ideas, perspectives, or points of view, information is now in a kind of limbo waiting to be found.
It’s not what is out there that is information. Whatever is out there becomes information only when someone, seeing it as useful, ‘adopts’ it and uses it. Whether they stumble upon it serendipitously or are consciously looking for ideas, a reference, or ‘additional information’ to help them with something they are working on, at the point at which they ‘connect’ with it, finding it interesting or believing it is useful, it becomes part of their knowledge (i.e. what they know) for a time. It is a common mistake to treat knowledge and information as if they are completely separate things. Knowledge – what we know and – information – which we acquire – are complementary. We find and use information because we have knowledge of how and where to look for it, plus an understanding of what we are looking for and some sense of what is likely to be useful and why.
Without a context of existing knowledge (i.e. what you already know), information is useless. In fact, without that context it is wrong to call it information, because it does not inform. Telling you the Empire State Building is 450 meters high is literally meaningless to you unless you know numbers, understand what a meter is, know what a building is and, more specifically, are interested in the height of buildings and the Empire State Building in particular. This is to say that ‘stuff’ is not information unless people can make some meaning of it and, when they do, it is knowledge (i.e. it is what you, or they, know). You are surely familiar with stories about inventors who, initially, were unable sell what later turned out to be very practical ideas (the invention of Xerography – photocopying technology – is one example), because potential investors who they tried to convince couldn’t ‘see’ the significance of their ideas. They had no context for appreciating the information they were given. They didn’t have the knowledge to assimilate it.
Much of the knowledge that we use to first find information and then use it is tacit. If I am in a restaurant and want to know what there is to eat, I know to look at the menu, or to ask the person who comes to serve me, particularly if I can’t understand (make meaning of) the menu because it is in a foreign language or it describes dishes from a country and culture I don’t know. I know, too, that a search engine is my door to lots of potentially useful information, but, until I learn (and know) how to use it, all this information is ‘hidden’, as if it doesn’t exist. When I buy a new piece of technology, I look for instructions on how to use it, but if the technology is far from what I already know, because I don’t have a context of existing knowledge, I might not be able to understand the instructions. They won’t provide me with useful information until I call a friend for help or ask an expert to help me.
Knowledge is social
These examples point to an important consideration about knowledge. Much of what we know isn’t in our heads. It is social – held and shared in groups or communities (McDermott, 2002). Because knowledge (or knowing) is social, because we share experiences and the meaning of ideas, experiences, values, and beliefs, we’re able to communicate, share knowledge, and collaborate.
As I’m sure you have discovered, however, shared experiences and shared meaning only go so far. You have been working on a project, with the same people, for some months and, just when you think you ‘know how another person thinks’ or believe ‘you’re all on the same page’, someone’s actions suggest that you really don’t know what motivates them or, perhaps, that they haven’t understood what you said or what you expected from them.
One of the complexities of organizational life is that we work with and are expected to share knowledge with people who have very different interests and experiences, even when they are from the same organization. Nowadays, the people we work with are often from different, even competing organizations (Addleson, 2011). When there are two or more prime contractors and many more subcontractors on a very large project – as you find, for example, with any Major Defense Acquisition Project (MDAP) – innumerable organizational, occupational, and interpersonal boundaries exist in the multiple networks of professionals who must interact and share knowledge in order to do the work. These differences contribute to breakdowns, when work gets done badly and the whole project may run into difficulties, which is one important reason why we have to pay attention to knowledge and really work at ensuring we are sharing it effectively.