The knowledge revolution - this time its personal

The knowledge revolution - this time its personal

By Spiro Raftopoulos

Knowledge management is not information management

It's all about turning knowledge workers into knowledge-smart workers. Until professionals understand how they translate unrelated information packets into knowledge and then into powerful skills, then the practice of knowledge management will remain an elusive dream and a non-core element of a company. If professionals are still saying today that they are drowning in information, but starving of knowledge; then knowledge management is failing. But only now do we understand how we convert information packets into professional knowledge.

The future looks bright. In aspiring to provide knowledge management (KM) services, one caveat for information management (IM) practitioners is that a mental shift in their professional purposes may be needed if they are to succeed. Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, in 1990 reluctantly moved beyond computer chip making to network card making (the world standard PCI) to ensure new generations of chips would be in demand. History has shown this was a brilliant move. A persistent executive brought him to that point of breakthrough thinking that Grove referred to as an epiphany. Like Grove, IM practitioners may need an epiphany if they are to make KM initiatives succeed.


Most of the existing definitions of knowledge management are nothing more than rephrased definitions of information management. This is one of a number of conclusions emeritus professor Tom Wilson of Sheffield University in the UK has made about the current state of KM worldwide in a recent academic paper.

Wilson found little practical difference when the word 'knowledge' was replaced with 'information' in these definitions. Thus it was no surprise to see a further finding that nearly all published KM initiatives were simply modified versions of information management. Many of the definitions highlighted the process and not the desired outcome.

Without a clear, distinct purpose, KM will continue to be under-valued by management. A recent study conducted by Curve Consulting in the UK amongst one of the founding industrial groups to implement KM practices, namely law firms, found that full management support for KM was still lacking in most of the firms. Over 80 per cent of those firms surveyed did not actively measure the return on investment generated through KM, with fewer even developing a proper business plan prior to implementation. The study concluded that failing to tie knowledge management to tangible business gains would mean that law firms would likely cut funding and commitment to KM initiatives in the long term.

The following definition highlights KM's distinct value. "Knowledge management is the systematic, continuous process of collecting, filtering, storing, accessing, applying and refining of information and knowledge to attain higher levels of competence."

KM is about producing changed behaviour in knowledge workers - enhanced human competence. It is not about more information, nor is it about more knowledge, the differences of which will soon be explained. It is about improved individual and group performance through improved skills. This is the value-added purpose of KM.

Knowledge can be simplified as personally meaningful information. We place a value in all incoming information. What may be of value to you may be of little value to me. Unlike a computer that has no inherent value system, the human mind interprets all incoming information.

Chinese Whispers is a game where one person creates a verbal phrase and whispers it to the next person along a chain of people often ending up to be quite a different phrase even just after the fifth recipient. Information exposure does not equate to assimilation.

Thus with all our brilliant teachers, encyclopedias and Web portals around us, we all would be emeritus professors by now. The human mind is much more sophisticated and complicated. Yet the key premise still held today in our education system, corporate training and in many current pseudo-KM initiatives is that information is an unchanging, highly transportable object from sender to receiver. As has been shown this is a fallacy.

One KM effort in a large Australian company was targeted at sales people. Sales people were supplied with all forms of electronic information, such as portals with quizzes, product updates, personnel yellow pages and CD-ROM products, and market updates they could listen to in the car. Yet no one had bothered to survey them to see if these enhanced delivery services greatly improved their selling skills. Product pricing and new deals updates could have been easily achieved by the humble, traditional memo and at far less the cost. The KM implementers based their interventions on information exposure through better delivery systems, a traditional 'push-down' model, and achieved arguably limited results.

If knowledge is not a commodity, but a personal individual entity, then 100 per cent of your mind database is self-generated! Nothing or, no one can 'impart their knowledge' to you. Only you generate knowledge. That is why our PC filing systems are so different from each others. This constructivist view says that we create and manage our very own personal library, our own one-of-a-kind operating system! So unlike a computer, the mind is no simple download-friendly system. The only 'knowledge bases' that exist in the world are between people's ears, never on external databases.

A metaphor for our knowledge base is the way the computer handles new information. In any open application, we operate on short-term memory, known as RAM. New information only enters permanent storage when it is saved, when it enters the Hard Drive. A value is placed on the information for it to be saved. New information could be said to be like RAM and knowledge therefore like HDD.

The following is another example highlighting the distinction between the two entities. Four people hear the same information: "Hey guys... there is a low pressure system coming over the bay and likely to be 25 knots, south-westerly." Some typical responses might be:

Anne: "Sounds interesting, whatever it means!" (information)

Jason: "Some weather conditions I think." (information)

Zoe: "Mmmm, bad weather for my dinghy (interpretation)
I won't go out." (knowledge)
Jake: "Hey, my dinghy is going to fly (interpretation)
...I'm going!" (knowledge)

What happened here? The same information with different interpretations; some could not even interpret it!

For the first two people information remained information for them - not knowledge. It really made no sense to them. They could not generate knowledge from it. Yet, the latter two people were able to interpret the information but with different outcomes - different knowledge! Thus 'knowledge' has a personal characteristic to it. Only then can it be actively converted to a form of skill or competence.


Not all knowledge is immediately applicable. Some knowledge is immediately applicable while other knowledge is potentially applicable. Both forms are nevertheless stored in our brain hard drive. We may know a lot about something, but not actually practise it. We know a fair bit about other functions within our organisations, but we cannot say we know their practices intimately. We may know a lot about football, but we may not personally know how to kick a football. Years of sales representative work has shown that loads of product and market information exposure does not automatically transfer to street-smart selling skills. We can say we have the head knowledge, but not as yet the hand or mouth knowledge.

Competence therefore is a set of behavioural skills we may call 'working knowledge' or 'know-how.' Accelerating 'know-how' is being achieved by better learning transfer systems, particularly 'face-to-face communities of practice' backed up by technology and online discussion groups. These work on the KM principle of 'proximity' - spatial and subject matter intimacy, an end-user driven practice, a 'push-in and up' model.

Implications for IM practitioners. The more the IM practitioner understands the human learning process the better they will provide appropriate interventions and thus enhancing knowledge worker performance. Methods for optimal learning transfer must be employed. It will require new synergies between traditionally separate functions - IM, IT, HR and Training. A prevalent 'silo/turf war' mentality between functions will only nullify any new KM initiative. Making knowledge workers into knowledge-smart workers nevertheless is the goal and a challenging new horizon for those who accept it.

Spiro Raftopoulos is Managing Director of Knowledge Management Dynamics.He can be contacted at

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