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What is Knowledge and Can it Be Managed

by Craig S. Mullins
Published: March 1, 1999
As the decade, and indeed, the millenium begins to draw to a close, the promise of technology is prevalent in all we do, see, hear, and touch.

As the decade, and indeed, the millenium begins to draw to a close, the promise of technology is prevalent in all we do, see, hear, and touch. Technology is the driving force behind the stock market and therefore, the economy. The aura of the Internet has sent the value of Internet-based companies stock like EBAY, Yahoo!, and Amazon.com through the roof. And more new technologies, with additional promises are introduced almost daily. From Java to data mining to intranets to video conferencing to web casting to XML it is almost impossible to keep up, yet technology optimism is rampant.

But what does any of this have to do with "knowledge," the topic of this article? Well, there is an increasing level of hype around the term "knowledge management" these days. But what is knowledge? Furthermore, what is knowledge management and can knowledge really be managed? Let's investigate!

Several technology vendors are offering such solutions as panaceas for the business challenges of the knowledge era. Trade press coverage of the "productivity paradox" has further added to the speed of the information technology (IT) treadmill by suggesting that increasing investments in new information technologies should somehow result in improved business performance.

What is Knowledge?

Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary defines knowledge as "the fact or condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association." This seems to be a good definition of knowledge as it is universally used and accepted.

However, it begs the following question: what is meant by the term "knowing?" Once again, let's turn to Webster's. The word "know" is defined as "to perceive directly: have direct cognition of." And just for completeness sake, cognition is defined as "the act or process of knowing including both awareness and judgment."

So, according to these definitions knowledge implies cognition, and cognition implies awareness. And computers, quite obviously, do not have "awareness"-at least not yet.

The Evolution from Data to Knowledge and Beyond

The basic building block of knowledge is data. Data is a fact represented as an item or event out of context and with no relation to other things. Examples of data are 27, 010110, and JAN. Without additional details we know nothing about any of these three pieces of data. Consider:

  • Is 27 a number in base ten, or is it in octal (which would translate to 23 in base ten)?
  • If 27 is a number in base ten what does it represent? Is it an age, a dollar amount, an IQ, a shoe size, or something else entirely?
  • What about 010110? Is it a binary number? Or is it a representation of a date, perhaps January 1, 1910? January 1, 2010? Or something else entirely?
  • Finally, what does JAN represent? Is it a woman's name (or a man's name)? Or does it represent the first month of the year?

All of these are examples of data because of the lack of context.

Information, on the other hand, adds context through relationships between data, and possibly other information. Data with meta data and context makes information. The relationships may represent information, yet the relations do not actually constitute information until they are understood. Also, the relationships that represent data have a tendency to be limited in context, mostly about the past or present, with little if any implication for the future.

Knowledge adds understanding and retention to information. It is the next natural progression after information. To have "knowledge" requires information in conjunction with patterns between data, information, and other knowledge, couples it with understanding and cognition.

The final step would be to move from knowledge to wisdom. Wisdom can be thought of as knowledge applied. You may have the knowledge that fatty foods are bad for you, but if you eat it anyway, you are not wise. I predict that within the next few years some brave organization will attempt to offer wisdom management, as the natural progression from knowledge management. (Note: I do not necessarily predict they will succeed.)

What is Knowledge Management?

The cynical answer to this question would be "any product that any vendor wants to sell more copies of." As with any new term or hot topic "knowledge management" has already been co-opted by technology vendors, including both software vendors and consulting firms. Everything from document management systems to query and reporting tools to OLAP engines to repositories are being labeled as "knowledge management" tools. So, the first bit of advice you should follow is to be skeptical of all claims from all vendors promoting any knowledge management solution.

But that does not answer the question: what is "knowledge management?" Here are a few definitions I came across in industry publications and out on the web:

Knowledge management encompasses management strategies, methods, and technology for leveraging intellectual capital and know-how to achieve gains in human performance and competitiveness.

GartnerGroup, 29 August 1996, www.gartner.com

Knowledge management can be defined as "the harnessing of a company's collective expertise wherever it resides and the distribution of that expertise to the right people at the right time. It's not a product but a process-the process of gathering, managing, and sharing your employees' knowledge capital."

Yes, Knowledge Can Be Managed

To accomplish knowledge management as defined above requires investment. The business strategy of the organization must acknowledge the requirement to capture knowledge and actively foster the effort. Knowledge exists in people, not technology, and as such will require a massive human effort. Technology can help to capture information, but it can not create knowledge. Useful technologies include search engines, scanning technology, optical character and voice recognition software, intelligent agents, database management systems, document management systems, and repositories.

Once the information is identified, collected, and managed, it must be transformed into knowledge. This requires classification, analysis, and synthesis. This step, too, requires human intervention. Knowledge can not be created by technology. Only a human being can render information into a format that causes it to be easily transformed into knowledge by another human being upon retrieval. Useful technologies for this phase of the knowledge management process include statistical analysis software, data mining tools, OLAP and decision support systems, AI, and data visualization tools.

The final phase is effectively communicating the captured "knowledge." I use "knowledge" in quotes because knowledge is not truly captured. Instead, what is captured is information that is more easily transformed into knowledge by the recipient. Technologies that help to facilitate communication include collaboration technology, groupware, workflow management systems, e-mail, the web, networking technology, and mobile computing. The captured "knowledge" should be easily convertible into any format preferred by the recipient (for example, word processing documents, Adobe files, text files, etc.)

But It Won't Be Easy

There are many obstacles on the path to knowledge management. Usually, the first impediment to success is dealing with the folks who have the knowledge. Many business people feel that "knowledge is power." So, if I give up my knowledge, I give up my power. If I give up my power, I am more expendable. More progressive organizations share information and knowledge more freely. This attitude needs to permeate the organization for knowledge management to succeed.

Another possible bump along the path to knowledge management implementation is lack of knowledge. Some organizations "fly by the seat of their pants" without knowing much about the competition, the market, their customers, etc. Organizations with this problem, though, will soon face greater problems than the inability to implement knowledge management.

A more frequently occurring problem is lack of time to capture the knowledge that does exist. Competitive information may exist only in the head of the sales person. But she is always on the road and needs to be closing business to make those quarterly numbers. So management may "mouth" their commitment to knowledge management, but act otherwise by encouraging immediate concerns over longer-term concerns (such as knowledge management).

Finally, the ROI on knowledge management is difficult to measure. How do you determine that something was "known" by someone quicker with knowledge management in place? And if you can determine that, how can you measure the productivity gain? These things can lead to executive-level discomfort with the costs of implementing knowledge management.

The Bottom Line

Knowledge management is over-hyped and misunderstood. It is not a technology, but an amalgamation of strategy, technology, and people. There are no panaceas where you just plug in some new technology and "bang" you have knowledge management. But the proliferation of "knowledge" throughout an organization is unquestionably a good thing. Start today to understand what it is and work toward a plan that maps out a knowledge management strategy for your organization. Or plan to lose business to those companies that do!

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Recent articles by Craig S. Mullins

Craig S. Mullins - Craig S. Mullins is a data management strategist and principal consultant for Mullins Consulting, Inc. He has three decades of experience in the field of database management, including working with DB2 for z/OS since Version 1. Craig is also an IBM Information Champion and is the author of two books: DB2 Developer’s Guide and Database Administration:The Complete Guide to Practices and Procedures. You can contact Craig via his website.