Knowledge Management (KM) and the Epistemic Tradition

Article excerpt

All men by nature desire knowledge.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E)

There is little doubt that a phenomenon called "Knowledge Management" (KM) is fast becoming the "hottest thing" in the information sector since the computer. Books and articles(1) on KM are beginning to flow from many quarters. Computer-based list-servs,(2) World Wide Web sites,(3) and conferences on KM(4) are beginning to spring up, too, at an amazing pace. As with anything new and sensational that affects our field, reading and hearing what people have to say about KM are stimulating. Thinking about how we might play a role in knowledge development in our own organizations is fascinating, too.

Getting simple answers to complex questions, however, is never easy. Not only are there no cookbook approaches to "doing" KM, there is little agreement on what KM is. And some doubt exists that what we are seeing and trying to understand is really new. How can KM be "the latest thing" when Aristotle and his predecessors spent so much time thinking and teaching about knowledge some two thousand years ago? Part of the reason that there is so much commotion about "knowledge" today is that as yet we lack the tools to build a satisfying understanding of this abstract concept beyond the buzz-word level.

Some of the challenges to our understanding KM are worth noting. It is clear, for example, that not everyone means the same thing by identical terms; there is no standardized vocabulary. We find ourselves surrounded by ambiguous terms and key concepts such as "knowledge" vs "information," "data," "information ecology," "passive knowledge," "active knowledge," "explicit knowledge," "implicit knowledge," and many others. The continuing debate on terminology, among many voices, may be heard at:km@MCCMEDIA.COM.

DEFINING "KNOWLEDGE"

Much like a butterfly collector, I've been amassing definitions of "knowledge" and "knowledge" as compared to "information." Here is a very small, but bewildering, sample:

[Information is] knowledge communicated concerning some particular fact, subject, or event; that of which one is apprised or told ... (Oxford English Dictionary)

Knowledge is content, and information is process (Fritz Machlup, Knowledge: Its Creation, Distribution, and Economic Significance. Vol. I, Knowledge and Knowledge Production [Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980])

An information retrieval system does not retrieve information. Indeed, information is something quite intangible; it is not possible to see, hear, or feel it. We are 'informed' on a subject if our state of knowledge on is somehow changed. Giving a requester a document on lasers or a reference to such a document does not inform him on the subject of lasers. Information transfer can only take place if the user reads the document and understands it. Information, then, is something that changes a person's state of knowledge on a subject ... (F. Wilfred Lancaster, Information Retrieval Systems: Characteristics, Testing and Evaluation [New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1979])

Knowledge is the intellectual manipulation of carefully verified observations. (Sigmund Freud)

... what can be recorded is not knowledge, but only a representation of knowledge. ... Where there is knowledge, there must be a knower; pieces of paper know nothing. ... In telling what knows, information and knowledge are logically distinct; but if we learn by observing rather than reading and listening there is no message and so no information (the semantic content of a message); we acquire information..., but this is not the same as acquiring knowledge. (Patrick Wilson, Public Knowledge and Private Ignorance [Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977]) knowledge is pleasure which carries with it no reproach. Sydney Smith)

Knowledge itself does not give special power; only exclusive knowledge gives power to its possessors. (Eliot Friedson, ed. …