The term “knowledge management” has no specific and concrete definition. It is used in many varieties, which makes it more difficult to address the issue at hand. But getting “deep” into the term “knowledge” is not only enlightening but also putting the context on the right level.
Knowledge, closely connected to the question “what can we know?”, is a philosophical issue and has epistemical limits. More common is the – at the same time – misunderstanding between data, information, and knowledge.
What is knowledge?
Data is the most simple form of “content” we might gather. It might be a mere number or filled out questionnaires and not processed, yet. Information, therefore, is processed data, gaining a higher level of understanding of the data at hand, e.g. data sets that have been filtered. Given, a lot of information is available, knowledge is the connection of all this information by an agent who is capable of drawing conclusions by applying the information to contexts and problems. This is another step of processing, but a much more elaborate one and it needs intelligence to do so.
But knowledge comes in different forms!
There are three different “levels” of knowledge that are being adresse in the context of “knowledege management”:
- tacit knowledge
- implicit knowledge
- explicit knowledge
Knowledge is explicit when it has been formulated and documented. It often shows up explicitly in documents and any form of storage medium. It can be found in databases, libraries, archives, but also in folders, books, or papers on your desk or your computer desktop.
Explicit knowledge is rather easy to find and easy to use, it can be administered and processed with technical support whatsoever: a pen, a calculator, or a computer. The latter, at the same time, point to our next stage of knowledge: implicit knowledge.
A paper or a computer may be a document or hold documents with explicit knowledge. They are at the same time containers of implicit knowledge: a paper also keeps the “secret” of how paper is made. A computer also holds the key to how a computer is built. Yet, the exact know-how, the explicit knowledge, is hard to retrieve. It is inscribed in the very matter but does not “speak” openly about it. The same counts for processes, routines, or cultures – just to mention the “soft” version of “things” that is easily forgotten in such contexts.
E.g. a culture holds rules or habits that are not openly visible for everybody who is entering the realm of this very culture – and this does not necessarily mean you going on vacation to Micronesia, but simply by starting a position at a new company, you might wonder how things are “done” there. But retrieving these matters of implicit knowledge is usually easier, since you do have first hand access and can observe what’s going on. Still, you need to do the interpretation yourself.
Many companies try to manage this “state of aggregation” of knowledge with IT. Thereby, it might happen that a formalization of procedures or “how things are done” causes costs on the side of flexibility: when there is a fixed way how to do it, you can not just react but have to follow by the rules. This is called formalization and is often found in so called “Quality Management” or “Compliance”.
Tacit knowledge often depends on intuition and is related to the very context at hand. This is why it is not explicit. It has to be detracted at the moment when it’s needed. It is not embedded in documents or things, but is practically embodied in human beings: People are carrying it in themselves and they use it ad hoc whenever they need it. It might be called intuition, know-how, or experience. Also understanding is part of it since this refers to the process of internalizing that very knowledge.
Tacit knowledge is not necessarily totally unaccessable or unused, since employees are using it in their daily work. But, there must be a context or a reason for that is activated and one has enquire directly to learn about it form his/her colleague. This in turn depicts the transmission form human to human, from employee to employee. There is no technical or formalized way of transmission working and therefore it is difficult to grasp and to administrate alike.
Sure, you can retrieve this knowledge, but every colleague might frown upon the task to explicitly put down why and how he has reacted in this or that situation the way she or he did. Let alone, the effort to explicate this is also very high and this counts for explicating it as well as for its reception. Who wants to read about why the sales-person did react in a very special case with the Chinese customer just the way he did?
Yet, tacit knowledge is the “gold” of your company. It makes the show going on even if there is no rule for this very special sales case. It is hard to be activated from a third party but it is the most worthy knowledge and therefore is in the center of interest when it comes to modern knowledge management.