What Do We Know? The Great Info-Knowledge Debate

Despite the popularity of the buzzword knowledge management, there’s actually a fair amount of debate in the KM community over whether it’s actually possible to manage “knowledge.” In a way, this debate reminds me of Terry Jones‘ brilliant observation about the War on Terror, “How do you wage war on an abstract noun?”

In order to decide whether knowledge can be managed, you must understand what knowledge is…

WHAT IS KNOWLEDGE?

It’s easy to understand how data and information can be managed – we do that with computers, filing cabinets, and grocery lists all the time.

But according to KM practitioners, “knowledge” is definitely not synonymous with “information” – despite the fact that many dictionaries seem to think so. Well, lexicographers often are slow to catch up with changing times, that’s understandable.

Still, I’m frustrated that most KM practitioners who seem driven to debate this distinction ad nauseum can’t clearly describe this distinction. Two of the (rare) good attempts I’ve seen are from Mathemagenic and Dick Stenmark’s landmark paper, Information vs. Knowledge – The Role of intranets in Knowledge Management.

With that, here’s my humble contribution to this debate:

What’s the difference between knowledge and information?

  • Information generally includes facts, observations, sensations, and messages. Information is content which informs our minds. It’s fuel.

  • Knowledge, in contrast, is the human experience of information – it’s what our minds DO with all that content. It’s the fire in the forge.

  • Think verbs, not nouns. It seems much easier to grasp this distinction by focusing on the verbs “inform” and “know,” rather than the nouns “information” and “knowledge.” Try that one on for size in your next discussion on this topic.

  • This is a spectrum, not a duality. I think that hair-splitting KM professionals endure painful verbal contortions in this debate because it’s often unclear precislely where information crosses into the realm of knowledge. There are many similarities between the two categories, after all. However, this gray area is OK because our brains can pick up with creating and managing knowledge where technologies reach their limit. This is why the human brain is an intrinsic and indispensable (but generally overlooked and undersestimated) part of any KM system.

There. See what happens when you let an editor loose in other disciplines? Watch out, knowledge managers, information architects, and your ilk – more of us are coming to your party. Better order more beer.

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