30 April 2007

The search for the unified definition of Knowledge...

I could not resist!

Knowledge has nearly as many definitions as the number of authors who wrote about it or about a related subject such as Knowledge Management (by the way, you can find quite a few definitions of KM as well and maybe this explains that).

Well, guess what, I had to give “my” own definition!

On the ActKM listserve ( ) a still on-going debate on the definition of knowledge generated very valuable insights. I have extracted a few extracts and composed a definition attempting to synthesize the thinking of all these bright individuals:

Dave Snowden ( ) quoting Prusak and Davenport in their book “Working Knowledge”:

"Knowledge is a fluid mix of framed experience, values, contextual information, and expert insight that provides a framework for evaluating and incorporating new experiences and information. It originates and is applied in the minds of knowers. In organizations, it often becomes embedded not only in documents or repositories but also in organizational routines, processes, practices, and norms"

Joe Firestone’s definition ( ):

Knowledge is a tested, evaluated and surviving structure of information (e.g., DNA instructions, synaptic structures, beliefs, or claims) that is developed by a living system to help itself solve problems and which may help it to adapt.”

Han Van Loon’s version of Joe’s definition ( ):

"Knowledge is a learned and analysed structure of awareness based upon
information (e.g., DNA instructions, synaptic structures, beliefs, or
claims) that is developed by a living system

A suggestion of a synthesis:

Knowledge is a learned and evaluated fluid mix of framed experience, values, contextual information and expert insight; that is developed by a living system. In organizations, knowledge often becomes embedded not only in documents or repositories but also in organizational routines, processes, practices, and norms.
Living systems use knowledge either instinctively or in a state of awareness (typically the latter first then the former through acquisition of reflexes for repetitive actions) to compete for resources and survival, through solving problems, adapting to challenges and setting objectives.

Still on the ActKM listserver, Kaye Vivian ( ) writes:

The abstraction we call "Knowledge" has three aspects (I propose):
(1) what is acquired by learning
(2) the sum of everything known
(3) a state of awareness
and perhaps a fourth for those who argue that knowledge can exist in neural, hormonal or sensory systems:
(4) instincts

Kaye goes on then asking us all if we can think of an instance of knowledge that does not fit into any of these four aspects. Assuming for a moment that none can be found, I think that my suggested definition above does try to cater for all 4 of these aspects.

But hold on! Don’t get over excited! I surely have not suddenly stumbled on the unified definition of knowledge. I will post it on ActKM as well and I anticipate quite a bit of constructive criticism. I will keep you informed and will amend the definition accordingly.

So watch this space...

Peter-Anthony Glick


At 1:14 AM, Blogger Dave said...

ou are not quoting me Peter, but my reference to Prusak and Davenport. You are quoting it out of context as if I endorsed it , I actually said that no KM programme in my experience had ever failed for lack of a definition and if you had some senior manager demanding one then use P&D and move on.

I do think a simple statement would help. Namely that knowledge is the means by which we create information from data. If we do not share a common knowledge context then information reverts to data. It does not of course follow that all knowledge is represented as information. The idea that knowledge is a higher level of information I have always found difficult to explain in operational mode. However most people get it as the means of data-information conversion. This is not a definition by the way, but a description of function,

At 1:47 AM, Blogger Joseph said...

Peter, Thanks for quoting me accurately, and please note that the definition was jointly developed by Mark McElroy and myself.

I like your own attempt at synthesis. But it's not brief and it also doesn't clearly distinguish biological, mental, and cultural knowledge as ours does. I think biological knowledge is important for KM; since its recognition implies that KM may have something to say about recruiting.

Finally, as long as you're allowing longer definitions in, then I think that the following three paragraphs enrich our definition:

• tested, evaluated, and surviving structures of information in physical systems that may allow them to adapt to their environment (e.g., genetic and synaptic knowledge composed of biological structures used in developmental and learning processes);

• tested, evaluated, and surviving beliefs and belief predispositions (in minds) about the world (subjective, or non-sharable, mental knowledge composed of mental structures used in learning, thinking, and acting); and

• tested, evaluated, and surviving, sharable (objective), linguistic formulations about the world (i.e., claims and meta-claims that are speech- or artifact-based or cultural knowledge used in learning, thinking, and acting.



At 8:58 AM, Anonymous Han said...

Hi Peter, as one of the protagonists in the ActKM discussion and guilty of attempting to modify Joe's definition of knowledge because it was a good basis for discussion (mea culpa), I would propose that you could have a very simple definition:
"Knowledge is a learned and analysed structure of awareness based upon information."
The meaning of 'awareness' in this definition for humans is a combination of cognition and information. Of course, simple definitions are misleading because they don't lead readers into thinking about varying shades of interpretation or meaning.
More important for me is how knowledge is used, for that I suggest readers may wish to look at my knowledge cycle on my web site. I hope the diagram is worth (at least) a thousand words :-)

At 8:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Peter, just to comment further on your title and definition.
1. Organizational knowledge - specifically 'knowledge often becomes embedded not only in documents or repositories but also in organizational routines, processes, practices, and norms'.

One of the obvious issues of considering knowledge as embedded in documents and repositories is to observe what happens when someone leaves. As you know from personal experience, reading documents or looking in information repositories extremely rarely provides the same level of information as having the person available. This is improved if that person's work is captured in processes and routines, but even in highly disciplined (process) organizations (which are in fact fairly rare) this is still incomplete. CoPs, norms and human centered methods (i.e. non IT methods) can improve the shared information and 'common knowledge' further, more so in communitarian cultures than in individualistic cultures. In individualistic organizational cultures, the 'common knowledge' is far more restricted because individuals do not share to the same extent, due to many motivations. I am using quotes for 'common knowledge' because I believe it is not quite correct, it is actually common routines, processes, information (etc.) which ultimately each person interprets in his or her own way. To provide a simple example in the watchmaking industry - apprentice watchmakers learn from master watchmakers, with precise instruction, however it takes many years to achieve the work standard of a master watchmaker. The master continually transfers information to the apprentice, often in minute detail to help the apprentice learn. The teaching-learning process leads to the apprentice creating his or her body of knowledge about watchmaking that hopefully closely matches that of the teacher. This is a relationship that often runs over years. Now considered more typical training that lasts months, weeks or days. How much more limited is the transfer of information and the creation of knowledge? As a university teacher I can assure you it is very limited. As a consultant, I try to improve my client's creation of knowledge by adopting a similar practice to that of master watchmakers by spending as much time with the client as possible, working with them through the various challenges and problems they encounter. As you know if you take on the task of someone who leaves - you encounter plenty of problems and challenges that you either inadequately handle or that take much longer to do compared to when the person who left did them. My conclusion is that organization knowledge is a misnomer for organizational routines, processes, information.

We need to quit fooling ourselves that information is knowledge, each time someone learns or leaves the difference is apparent.

It is important to recognize the different levels of knowledge people have (see my STARS knowledge cycle with the master, expert, competent types). Not only does each type learn differently, they use their knowledge differently. They have different impacts on how an organization functions, on what explicit information (esp process) they need to do their work and how they interact with and affect others. Embrace these human knowledge differences and you will begin to understand why existing information structures are inadequate, furthermore you will realise that so-called knowledge management is a human centered discipline rather than an information system discipline.
Han van Loon

At 6:42 PM, Blogger Anuja said...


We are looking for Industry professionals who write on IT, ITeS or related Industry. We would be interested in talking to you. Can you please send us your email at

Thanks Anuja.

At 2:16 PM, Blogger D L Thomas said...

Here it is many years later since this article - now just discovered. Dr. Richard L. Ballard featured in the first KM Magazine October 1998, defined knowledge as a formula: KNOWLEDGE = THEORY + INFORMATION.

Dennis L. Thomas, IQStrategix


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