Knowledge Management. What is knowledge?

Knowledge is the only one asset held by all companies that makes all of them different. A company designing technology solutions, a company with an incredible supply chain management that places any item in our homes in record time, a company providing services to help us keeping our welfare, any of these businesses survive due to the knowledge held by their employees.

The above statement confirms the fact that firms are putting more and more effort in designing the needed mechanisms to guarantee an efficient management of the knowledge surrounded them. To do that, companies define a list of actions in order to capture, store and transfer knowledge. But they always have in mind that this knowledge is valuable only if it can used to generate new knowledge which lead companies to have a competitive advantage in the market. But, do we understand what knowledge really is?

The word “knowledge” is used in different situations and contexts being hardly differentiated from other terms such as “information”, “understanding”, “insight”, “data”, etc. Nevertheless, we all accept that knowledge is not only information. There must be something else; it is something more complex and structured. There is a big difference between “to be informed” and “to know”; so there is between “to listen” and “to hear” (to listen – like to know – has a higher degree of awareness and interiorizing of the information).

Authors have tried to explain the differences among data, information, and knowledge. Robert J. Thierauf define these three elements in his book “Knowledge Management Systems for Business”:

  • Data: they are facts and figures presented with no classification or treatment. No pattern is perceived so there is no possibility of use. For example, imagine we receive an Excel file with 365 rows and 2 columns filled with numbers, but no more explanation or texts is showed in the file – we might say these are data.
  • Information: information is data previously treated which is presented in a context that facilitates its understanding. Following the previous example, say that we receive the same Excel file, which is part of a climate change study, and the first column is titled as “average temperature (ºC)”, and the second column is the date the temperature has been recorded. The context (the climate change study) and the classification of the data (columns by date and temperature) show us another perspective of what this data really means. Now, we know what all those numbers are about. But, is this knowledge? It depends…
  • Knowledge: as we mentioned before, knowledge is something more complex in the pyramid we are trying to build in this article. Knowledge is not only information, but it is also the capability of understanding this information. In the example we are using here, it is legible to think that the person who receives the Excel file (temperatures and dates) knows the value of the data and find some use for it; therefore, knowledge is information that can be used for any good in the future.

Gamble y Blackwell presented a better definition: "Knowledge is a fluid mix of framed experience, values, contextual information, expert insight, and grounded intuition that provides an environment and framework for evaluating and incorporating new experiences and information. It originates and is applied in the mind of the knowers."

In organizations knowledge often becomes embedded not only in documents or repositories, but also in organizational routines, practices and norms. While some IT systems facilitate the information management, there is still room for improvement in the way this information is converted into knowledge and how to manage it.

KM pyramid