What do we know about knowledge? This is the kind of question that bites its own tail. Even so, thinking about the nature of knowledge may give you some idea of how managing it might work. Since there’s a lot to the topic of knowledge management this is going to take more than one post. Not because it wouldn’t fit into one post, but because I’m still thinking…
The central question in this post is:
What is the nature of knowledge?
Let’s skip definitions and get down to a few basic rules that seem to apply – unless you prefer a holistic, universal view of knowledge.
Knowledge is personal
- Limited to a person. If you bend over sideways, knowledge tends not to run out of your ear as the by-product of an intellectual ear infection.
- Limited in subject matter. Some people seem to know everything about everything, but omniscience is usually attributed to a single divine being. Humans spend their whole lives accumulating knowledge. We tend to know a lot about a little, and a little about a lot of things.
- Based on your own experience. It’s rare to run into someone who’s actually reviewed every bit of new information on its merits. You live life, bumping into random facts, and construct an image of what the world is like.
(Talking about the ‘personal experience’ aspect: you can see the need to get the world sorted out in kids of 3 – I have a handy specimen upstairs in bed. It’s quite a challenge to pry bits of fresh knowledge out once they’ve found a way into such a little head. Offering a bit of context, or examples where newly found truths don’t hold up, is often the only way to influence loudly-stated facts.)
What other characteristics does knowledge have?
Knowledge is subject to change
Knowledge evolves. You’re always learning. Which means you find and assess new information. You end up acquiring knowledge. Sometimes that means you need to review things you knew (things you thought were true).
In the book Dune by Frank Herbert, Paul Atreides got some unexpected advice upon reciting what he’d been taught. He was told that he had some ‘un-learning’ to do. Somewhere around the age of 20 young adults go through a phase when they assume they know how the world works. I know I did, and I’ve witnessed the same thing in others. In many cases that opinion is revoked or at least toned down a bit some 5 to 10 years later. A mature brain is one of nature’s wonders, and running into a few of life’s metaphorical but painfully unyielding walls sure helps too.
Knowing ‘everything’ is something you will only achieve if you live in a stable and uncomplicated environment which only changes in nearly unnoticeable detail (until the volcano erupts, anyway). If you’re reading this blog, that place is probably somewhere else.
Knowledge can be taken beyond its original context
You learn certain skills or ‘facts’, and at the same time you learn the methods you need in order to learn, or in order to solve a problem. Whether or not you take those methods and learn to apply them in different contexts depends on the environment in which you live and work. In a more or less static environment you may never need to apply your knowledge to any other field than the original one.
Examples of when you need to take your knowledge one level up:
- When changing jobs, especially if it involves moving into a different branch, if you switch to a different career or start your own company, you may find yourself scraping the bottom of your knowledge barrel for anything you can use in your new situation. This is the moment when even the most unlikely bits of knowledge can prove useful. You’re forced to get creative.
- At university you’re supposed to acquire an academic attitude towards information, methods, knowledge – but it’s still up to you to actually make the connection between one specific situation and others. If you do, you find yourself zooming out to see similar situations in which your knowledge applies, and then, if you’re very lucky (intelligent?), zooming out still further to notice how scientific methodology is relevant outside the academic realm. As a final step in this recipe, don’t forget to add a dash of social skills to avoid looking like a total wise-ass off campus. But that’s a different story ;)
- My earlier post about knowledge management. I also wrote about Creativity in business (acquiring new knowledge) and about Innovation and money matters.
- Learning in real life? This is an old post about the impact of social media on the way we think.
- Picture in this post found on Flickr. By degreezero2000: Ladder of Knowledge, Barcelona.
If you feel I missed anything major about the nature of knowledge, or if you have any other thoughts on the topic, just let me know. In my next post I will briefly (if possible) discuss a few ways in which knowledge management teams have tried to herd the curious cats of knowledge, and go into a central issue that has to do with the nature of knowledge management – and probably with a couple of other recurring business issues as well.