Metaknowledge Part I: Knowledge, Information, and Data

The Metaknowledge Guide offers a concise, practical guide to knowledge management for both newcomers and experienced practitioners.

Part I provides an intuitive interpretation of "knowledge", and how it compares to information and data. This helps you position knowledge management in relation to information management and data management in your organisation.

If we want to have effective knowledge management, we of course have to understand exactly what we’re managing. We intuitively know what knowledge is, but it can be quite difficult to define. It means different things to different people, in a different context. Some will interpret it as books and documentation, while others see it more as competences and skills. It doesn’t help that many IT tools are (incorrectly) marketed as “knowledge management tools”, which only adds to the confusion. This can, paradoxically, make knowledge seem very unknowable.

However, you don’t need a universal definition of knowledge. You only need a good-enough understanding of what knowledge means for your organisation, that you can act on. Something that helps you understand and communicate what knowledge management is about, and why it’s worth investing in. And to understand what knowledge is, we should understand what it is not. For this, we will consider the relation of knowledge, information and data. Though many understand there is a difference – we talk about information overload, but not knowledge overload – they are often discussed in the same context, and used interchangeably. Knowing where one ends and the other begins helps us to scope the activities that deal with each of them.

Knowledge vs Data vs Information

Let’s start with looking at the relation between data and information. These are concepts that are more tangible, so they’re a good place to start. Again, we’re not looking for a universal definition, but to establish an intuitive understanding that applies to our modern organisations.

Data is a list of observations, measurements, or records. It only exists in technology. Today that usually means IT systems, but it could also be paper or other forms. In itself, data usually doesn’t  say much until it is combined and put into context, which turns it into information. Usually these are graphs, tables, and other structured formats. In this way, data is the “raw material” of information. Note that the same data can provide different information – and different conclusions – depending on how you interpret it.

Knowledge exists only in the heads of people. It is a complex web of know-what, know-who, know-when, know-where, know-how, and know-why that was built through experience. And experience is the key word here – what we’ve learned by doing. Experience is the feedback to our actions that shapes our assumptions (what we think), which in turn shapes our actions. That’s the cycle of how we learn and build our understanding of the world. When a piece of knowledge is made explicit as text, audio, images, or video, it becomes information. 

Note: information is sometimes called "explicit knowledge", while knowledge in the head of people is called "implicit knowledge". This term especially refers to the knowledge we are not aware of, and is reflected in the "four knows". 

  • That which we know we know.
  • That which we know we don't know.
  • That which we don't know we know.
  • That which we don't know we don't know.

Identifying what we do and don't know, and managing the associated risks, is the base of knowledge risk management.

In the context of our companies, thinking of knowledge as experience is a useful approach. It sets knowledge apart from books and documentation. And it makes it clear that knowledge exists in and is shaped by people. So, no matter if you’re doing knowledge management in industry, pharma, legal, engineering, or other sectors, it all boils down to helping the people in your organisation leverage collective experience to their benefit. 

This is not only a huge benefit to their day-to-day work, it’s also a strategic opportunity for company. In today’s global, information-rich world, the only thing that differentiates you is your experience. That’s what sets you apart, and that’s what allows you to deliver real value, and solve real problems. And it can’t be replicated even by your closest competitors, as they will inevitably have experienced different things. Plus, experience is an asset your company is constantly producing regardless of how well things are going financially. As many companies have yet to adopt the strategic aspects of knowledge management to manage their knowledge capital, there is a huge early-mover advantage to be had.

In practice

So, at a glance, it would appear that data and knowledge management have a similar purpose: to facilitate and optimize the creation of relevant, actionable information. And that companies should invest in knowledge management for the same reason they invest in data: to create actionable insights. 

However! This is not the full picture. Regardless of whether it starts as data or knowledge, information is not the final product – knowledge is. People don’t act on the information they receive, they act on the knowledge they have internalized. Data practices (incl. data management, data governance, data science and business intelligence) aim to ensure data is collected, stored, accurate, and complete, and that this data is translated into useful information. Information management aims to ensure information is stored in the right place, up-to-date, and secure but accessible to the right people. Knowledge management is a collection of practices to facilitate the effective capture, sharing, and reuse of knowledge. And that emphasis on reuse is what sets knowledge management aside from information management and data practices. 

While data and information management aim to create high-value information assets, knowledge management aims to create high-value communication. It aims to help people leverage the experience and expertise of others, to learn collectively and work as efficiently and effectively as possible, and prevent avoidable mistakes. While data and information management are technology-oriented - and good information management is a crucial part of good knowledge management - knowledge management begins and ends with people.

23 December 2023

Metaknowledge Part VII : Governance

This part provides an overview of the different methods and tools to ensure a successful KM program.

Metaknowledge Part VI: Technology

Metaknowledge Part V : Roles

A deep dive into the different roles involved in each of the knowledge management activities.

Metaknowledge Part IV: Process

An in-depth examination of the processes and practices related to the four knowledge management activities, with examples for each.

Metaknowledge Part III: The 4X4KM knowledge management framework

This part of the Metaknowledge Guide provides the 4X4KM framework, based on the four core KM activities. This framework is an invaluable tool in organizing your KM, and keeping your efforts focused and productive.

Metaknowledge Part II: The three kinds of knowledge management

This part of the Metaknowledge Guide outlines the the three kinds of knowledge management, and how knowledge management relates to learning & development.

The Do's and Dont's of IT projects

What should we do to (and not do) to ensure the project runs smoothly, and delivers the best results? I asked a few experienced IT project managers what they've learned.

How we used Digital Transformation to improve construction projects

Here's the story of how we used process analysis and digital transformation to speed up construction project initiation.

It Took A Lot Of Jelly Beans

Peter Maeseele is an expert in design and business analysis, and a lead in a number of IT knowledge management initiatives. In this talk he shared some of his experiences and insights - and why jelly beans proved a key component of their change management.

The Lazy Man's Way Of Working

Lazy smart people leverage experience to their benefit. They take the time to save time.

Three Tricks I Learned, And You Should Too

Much of the value of knowledge sharing comes from sharing and reusing tricks and small improvements that are easy to replicate and adopt. Here are three 'tricks' I learned to improve work and life.

Better IT knowledge sharing = happier customers

Fewer calls, lower costs, and happier customers. Here are some results different IT teams saw by improving their knowledge sharing and communication. What would achieving similar results mean for you and your team?

[Interview] Not Everything German Is All German

Marianne Rutz shares some great insights and practical advice on how to account for local culture in global service teams, and how teams can leverage cultural diversity to improve their services.

[Interview] Breaking Silos in the Virtual Workplace

In this talk, Stefano Leone (IT communications and people strategy at Euroclear) sin improving collaboration and breaking down silo's in a tech-focused environment.

[Interview] The future of IT services

I recently appeared on the podcast of Marianne Rutz, a leading operational excellence consultant in the contact center industry. We talked about the future of IT services, and how to deliver real value to customers.

Nobody cares about the ServiceDesk

Traditionally, the ServiceDesk offers a safety net for IT users. But here's the thing: nobody wants a good safety net. They want to not need a safety net.

Shift-Left: getting started the right way

Many IT organisations are working to implement a shift-left of knowledge and capabilities. However, many of these initiatives don't deliver the expected results. To prevent this from happening to you, I’d like to share three pieces of advice to get started the right way.

[Case Study] 45% increased customer satisfaction at IT service company

We helped an IT company improve their service delivery. Within 6 months, the company saw 30% fewer complaints and incidents, 35% less rework, 45% higher customer satisfaction, and overall lower operating costs.


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