Types of Knowledge

The are many ways of categorizing knowledge - once you 'know' what 'knowledge' is. And that is the subject of endless debate. Over the centuries, philosophers have discussed epistemology, and more recently those in artificial intelligence have developed formalised constructs for knowledge. For practical business purposes, however, we find the following categorizations the most useful:

The Knowledge Hierarchy

The terms information and knowledge are often used interchangeably. In reality there is a hierarchy as shown in the diagram below.

knowledge hierarchy

Here's an example of the differences:

  • Data: 03772 41565 83385 10157
  • Information (interpretation): Heathrow weather station; visibility 15 km, sky completely cloudy; wind direction north west, speed 85 kts; temperature 15.7 degrees C.
  • Knowledge (understanding): my experience says this will cause severe flight delays.
  • Wisdom (insight): I shall book a train before other passengers realise the implications.

There is a clear distinction between the lower two levels and the top two. The bottom two are embodied in objects, e.g. documents and databases, while the higher levels are in people's heads. This is also the distinction between explicit and tacit knowledge.

Forms of embodiment: products, processes, people

In a business context the most common forms of knowledge are in:

  • Products: design and manufacturing knowledge that went into the product; there is also knowledge surrounding the product, such as on how to use it, its applications etc.
  • Processes: a business process is little more than codified best practice collated through experience of doing something many different times
  • People: after all "people are our most important asset" aren't they? Yet how many organisations focus their KM investments in IT solutions rather than the people who will use them?

In our article on strategies for leveraging knowledge, we also talk about other forms of embodiment, such as customer knowledge, relationships and intellectual property, such as trademarks and patents. A related perspective is that of intellectual capital which is commonly divided into structural, customer/relationship and human capital. The bottom line is to be conscious of where the vital knowledge in yoour organisation resides. In straw polls taken at my workshops, most attendees estimate that 70-80% of important knowledge is in people's heads. So that makes the KM challenge one of tapping into it in the most effective way.

Practice-oriented categories

  • Know-how: a skill on how to carry out specific tasks; some is embodied in procedures. Examples: knowing how to place a purchase order; knowing how to lift heavy items.
  • Know-who: who can help me with this question or task. Examples: knowing the best 'connected' and networked people; knowing who the expert is for a particular speciality.
  • Know-what: from basic facts (know-that) to more complex concepts, structural knowledge and patterns. Examples: knowing that the earth is round; knowing what is likely to be the cause of a problem.
  • Know-why: a deeper kind of knowledge, understanding the wider context. Examples: knowing why what seems a non-sensical procedure is being followed (e.g. to ensure regulatory compliance); knowing why customers really prefer your product to a competitors.
  • Know-when: a sense of timing. Examples: knowing when to buy and sell shares; knowing when to enter a new market.
  • Know-where: a sense of place, where is it best to do something. Examples: knowing where to locate your new venture (Silicon Valley?); knowing where best to manufacture your products.

In practice, the most important ones from a KM perspective are 1) know-who: often found in a skills directory ('Yellow Pages') or an online community (forum); 2) know-how: a combination of explicit (e.g. processes) and tacit (e.g. competencies and levels of expertise of staff); and 3) know-what: capturing the most commonly needed knowledge and organizing it in databases and portals (intranets). The others are more judgemental and are characteristic of highly qualified professionals and leaders whose experience and intuition guide them into making good decisions.

Degrees of diffusion

  • Personal/individual knowledge: known only to those who create it or conceptualise it
  • Shared: diffused to others, often by personal interaction with the creator
  • Proprietary: known widely within a given organisation, but protected from widespread external use
  • Public: readily available on the open market.

Boisot uses these categories as one dimension of his C-D space mapping of knowledge, where the C dimension is the level of codification of knowledge (i.e. tacit-explicit) and the D dimension is the level of diffusion (private - public). He charts the course by which knowledge evolves from private and undiffused into proprietary products and then into the public domain. An example is that of product development which goes through a process of concept - prototype - product commercialization. Nonaka's knowledge spiral is a similar concept which explains how knowledge evolves.

Last updated: 19th February 2011


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