What the heck is knowledge anyway: from commodity to capacity and insights

Ten years into KM and this is perhaps the most frequent question I’ve heard or come across to date in the knowledge management field: What is knowledge? Time to shoot at it, or better: time to plant a shoot…
Currently again, there is a KM4Dev discussion about ‘knowledge banks’ (see word cloud below) and on the side, the ‘what is knowledge’ phoenix (1) is reappearing. At the bottom of this question lies another crucial question: do you see knowledge as a thing, i.e. a commodity, or not? This has a profound implication on the KM language you use, the assumptions around KM that you nurture and the KM activities that you might wish to undertake.
The 'Knowledge bank' discussion wordle
The ‘Knowledge bank’ discussion wordle which inspired this post

For me, it’s quite simple: knowledge is not tangible and is certainly not a commodity. And the noun ‘knowledge’ itself sometimes leads to delusional assumptions about what knowledge is. I find it more fruitful to think of knowledge as two different things:

  • Knowledge is a latent capacity that we call upon to combine information available with various insights we have from past experiences, and use it in a given context.
  • Knowledge is also the collection of insights that we have in ourselves, based on information, emotions and intuitions we have. It is in that collection of insights that we tap to use our ‘knowledge capacity’ or our ‘capacity to know’.
At any point, we can tap into the knowledge we have, but we can never give it as is to anyone else. Because it is our very own unique combination and our very own unique capacity, the fruit of our personal development path. So, when we say ‘what do we know about xyz’, we are referring to the combined (abstract) mass of fuzzy insights that we collectively possess about xyz and the potential use we might make from that combined, collective, capacity.
Now, for the sake of stretching our minds a bit, let’s compare a typical (and voluntarily caricaturing) perspective of knowledge as a commodity and one of knowledge as a capacity. It might reveal some of the assumptions and expectations we have about knowledge.
Knowledge as a commodity Knowledge as a capacity
Knowledge is the embodied result of ‘knowing’ (possessing the knowledge) Knowledge is the emerging property of learning (developing new insights / knowledge)
Knowledge is universal – it has generic properties, it is ‘self contained’; it exists as is Knowledge is personal – it is the result of a combination of personal factors. It becomes itself when mixed with insights from experience.
Knowledge is rather static – it represents the ‘knowledge’ we have and changes only every so often, when it is ‘updated’ by some people, experts (e.g. peer-reviewed academic publications) or not (as on Wikipedia) Knowledge is dynamic – it keeps changing whenever it is invoked by anyone, anywhere – it is multi-faceted and ubiquitous
Knowledge can be transferred (one on one) Knowledge can be shared (but it gets necessarily recombined – it is not shared one on one either)
Knowledge can be stored (in a knowledge bank or base?) Knowledge cannot be stored – but insights shared can be codified, turned into information and stored (in an information bank, database or else)
Knowledge can be developed in writing Knowledge can be developed, stimulated / augmented (the capacity of using information can be increased) through social learning, thus not in writing. Information, however, can be put in writing, based on available knowledge (expertise)
Knowledge can be assessed – e.g. by theoretical ‘knowledge’ tests (how much do you know about x, y, z) – in a rather clear, straightforward 1/0 way Knowledge can be assessed by practical knowledge and know-how tests (how can you respond to challenge x, y, z) but it remains a fuzzy process
Knowledge can be managed Knowledge cannot be managed but its development and sharing can be stimulated and elicited – the environment that stimulates knowledge, however, can be managed (working on processes, tools, cultural values etc. to enable the development and sharing of knowledge)
Knowledge management is essentially information management: collecting knowledge and getting it to the right person at the right time to deal with challenges at hand Knowledge management is essentially knowledge sharing and it is about learning conversations that stimulate everyone’s ability to respond better to their own challenges
Of course the table suggests that the dynamic conception of knowledge, as a capacity, is more relevant, and in my eyes to a large extent it really is. I have made this starkly contrasted comparison to emphasise this point. But, for instance, information management is also a very important part of a sound and more complete conception of knowledge management.
This is all about emphasising the dynamic nature of knowledge, rather than the skewed commodity perspective and the dangerous expectations it sometimes generates.
That said, there must be major blind spots in this comparison, I put my knowledge to the learning test here – so what would you say?
(1) The phoenix is a mythological animal that ignites, disappears into ashes and arises in its new avatar. I like this as a metaphor for discussions that keep reappearing. In the KM world, typically the ‘what is knowledge’ question is a phoenix. Monitoring/assessing KM is another one.
Related blog posts:

Published by Ewen Le Borgne

Collaboration and change process optimist motivated by ‘Fun, focus and feedback’. Nearly 20 years of experience in group facilitation and collaboration, learning and Knowledge Management, communication, innovation and change in development cooperation. Be the change you want to see, help others be their own version of the same.

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  1. Thank you Chi Yan Lam for reblogging this.
    Thank you also Jaap and Carmen for your comments on the IKM posts. It’s a shame you couldn’t come over to the workshop, but please do participate in the conversation about IKM-2!
    Finally, thank you Terry for your comments and pointers on slow space and fast pace too – this is one of those ideas that keep being rediscovered and repolished…

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