Classes of knowledge

It's always dangerous to try and classify "knowledge", a notoriously slippery and difficult concept. But if we treat knowledge as an enabler of purposeful action, it becomes easier to think about where and how knowledge becomes relevant.

As many have noted elsewhere, knowledge is contextual rather than absolute. But there are some kinds of knowledge which are "standardised":

  • Some knowledge has developed to be more or less universal in a cultural group because they are foundational to clear communication: the alphabet, numbers, language, calendars.
  • Other knowledge will consistently apply within a profession: accounting standards, architectural drawing, medical jargon, and so on.
  • Still other knowledge is to a first approximation consistent, because the same scientific laws apply or facts can be determined: farming, cooking, death rates from malaria.
  • Let's call these things foundational knowledge. They are not always simple to learn, but they do have a "right" or "wrong" baseline that much other knowledge draws from.

    However, there are least two other classes of knowledge:

    • situational knowledge, which is primarily about which facts are known in relation to a particular scenario or process
    • cultural knowledge and norms possessed by a group, subgroup, or individual

    Both of these knowledge classes resist or defy standardisation since they are explicitly tied to the past, present, and expected future experiences of those involved. Superficial training such as induction packages will be insufficient to transfer and maintain these kinds of knowledge since they must be "lived", not taught. However, observations of culture and norms may allow conclusions to be drawn about the organisation, and identify likely workable approaches.

    Situational knowledge is able to be enhanced and updated using comprehensive and ongoing information capture and interpersonal sharing. This is the traditional area targeted by Knowledge Management. The effectiveness of these techniques will be greatly influenced by the explicit and implicit values articulated by managers, ie the cultural norms.

    Cultural knowledge and norms are possible to articulate, but are highly resistant to change. Generally, only the most senior leadership or a large grassroots coalition has the power to initiate cultural change. Most individuals will need to adapt to cultural norms rather than fighting them to succeed. However, by choosing to embrace or resist cultural norms, participants in a cultural group do have the ability to influence their future directions over time.

    It is worth emphasising that the long-term success of KM is far more bound in the compatibility of cultural norms with the current and future needs of the organisation than any other kind of knowledge. It's also something virtually impossible to import through a consultant or best practice.

    In summary: Understanding the class of knowledge being targeted is critical to determining the right techniques to adopt. Foundational knowledge can be taught using traditional learning techniques (assuming willing participants). Situational knowledge responds well to classic KM techniques but is contingent on an appropriate culture. Cultural knowledge is necessary to identifying the workability of the other two approaches but requires commitment and determination to change.

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