are clearly living in a "Knowledge Age." Wherever you look,
you find books, articles, programs, courses, advertisements,
and degree programs using the word "knowledge" in some way
to distinguish itself or its contents. This growing emphasis
on knowledge derives from the more complex views of economists,
sociologists, and other thinkers who have long (at least since
the early 1970s) realized that the economy in the more developed
world was devoted more to the production and delivery of knowledge-based
products and services than to manufacturing, agriculture,
mining, and other material goods. As one leading economic
thinker, Paul Romer, succinctly put it, in our new economy
"land, labor, and capital are being replaced by people, things,
Knowledge has become the main engine of our productivity
(and, of course, has always been the source of NASA's achievements),
but we still do not have a clear, shared understanding of
what the word "knowledge" means. This may seem like a minor
point to some of you just semantics but in fact
that lack of clarity has important implications. I have personally
seen tens of billions of dollars spent and largely wasted
by industry and governments to develop "knowledge systems"
of one sort or another, systems that were touted (and still
are, I assure you) as helping organizations be more efficient
or effective in working with their knowledge. When queried,
the consultants, vendors, and other cheerleaders for these
technical knowledge "solutions" would almost always conflate
knowledge and information, implying that the two words are
identical or close enough to make efforts to distinguish them
look like hair-splitting not the kind of intellectual
exercise a busy, time-pressured executive has time for. But
the result is that those executives end up spending millions
on huge "knowledge" systems that are really information or
even data management structures and have little or nothing
to do with knowledge.
To make sure that our knowledge investments and efforts really
do support knowledge creation and use, we often have to modify
our use of the word with some explanatory word or phrase:
"I'm talking about tacit knowledge," or "This is about intellectual
capital," or "I mean the know-how that you can't capture in
a system." Part of the problem is that we English speakers
have only one word knowledge to describe a variety
of ways of knowing.
These things were actually easier to sort out in classical
Greece. Aristotle had four different words to choose from
to describe different aspects of our one word, knowledge.
He could use the word Episteme when he wanted to refer to
approximately what we mean by scientific knowledge (abstract,
explicit, repeatable rules). Techne implied the skills and
crafts needed to accomplish something. Phronesis meant practical
skills like sales and management and emotional intelligence.
Metis, more difficult to translate, was used to mean cunning
and savvy something like what we mean by "street smarts"
or "knowing the ropes." It's the kind of knowledge Odysseus
had thousands of years ago and a skilled politician has today.
My intention is not so much to give you a lesson in classical
Greek as to point out how deficient our language is in trying
to encapsulate humanity's mental capabilities in one paltry
word. Those of us who try to work with knowledge and help
organizations improve their knowledge sharing and use often
have to make do with dichotomies that help explain what we
mean. We talk, for instance, about "explicit" versus "tacit"
knowledge that is, knowledge that can be stated in
words or set down in a document versus knowledge that eludes
capture and can only be learned by example, practice, and
mentoring. Even this dichotomy is too simple and therefore
misleading. All knowledge is somewhat tacit in that even the
most explicit, documented manual depends on the huge amount
of tacit knowledge the reader already has. And much know-how
(mainly tacit) is built of know-what (mainly explicit).
Such conceptual distinctions are still very useful, however,
as long as we keep them in perspective. After all, when a
person is immersed in a complex task or project, she doesn't
usually think, "Let's see, should I use tacit or explicit
knowledge now?" or "Do I need a document, a discussion, or
data at this point?" The act of doing even a simple thing
calls for a huge range of tools, techniques, and understanding
that are, in truth, all jumbled together in what William James
called the "blooming and buzzing" of life itself.
It is only when we want to do something about knowledge on
an organizational scale that we begin to run into these semantic
traps and language games. Trying to "manage" knowledge is
a difficult task made more difficult by the many definitions
and even greater number of assumptions as to what "knowledge"
actually is. This is why it is always a good idea to sit down
together and do that most rare of management activities
think about what exactly are the types of knowledge you wish
to work with when you start designing any project involving
the development, retention, and transfer of knowledge. Once
you've done that, it becomes easier to answer the less arduous
questions of what form the knowledge takes, where it is located,
how much value it has, and whether it can be documented or
needs to be taught person-to-person or group-to-group.
For instance, some of the knowledge needed to maintain a
complex piece of machinery is explicit and can be successfully
documented. Performance specifications, standard tests, schedules
for maintenance, the expected useful life of parts, and symptoms
and solutions for many problems can be captured and shared
with technicians by way of a database or manual. Many organizations
do exactly that; it is a valid and valuable kind of knowledge
transfer. But there is no manual that can teach someone to
be a master mechanic, and attempting to write one would be
a wasted effort. Such mastery involves a lot of subtle, tacit
knowledge (for instance, identifying a problem by a slight
change in the sound a machine makes or understanding how to
approach a problem you have never exactly seen before). Organizations
that recognize the kind of knowledge required for this kind
of skill will understand that they need to invest in the kinds
of activities that can develop it, activities including apprenticeship,
mentoring, and storytelling.
So while we won't all be forced to learn classical Greek
(or even classical Chinese, which I'm told has even more terms
for what we lump together as "knowledge"), we do need to be
clear and careful about what we mean by "knowledge" if we
want to be able to support it effectively in our organizations.
Developing "meta-knowledge" (knowledge about knowledge) is
important. After all, William James also said, "How do I know
what I think until I see what I said?"