To solve any problem, people need knowledge. The needed knowledge is there somewhere,
described in some way, but it is often unavailable to those who need it most and at the right
time and place.
A short story from Maharashtra, India.
During a workshop on knowledge management I asked if workshop participants could tell me
about a real life example of seeking the knowledge that has not been readily available. They
told me about the situation a few years ago when after several years of shortage of onion on
the market, farmers had very good year and there was a big surplus of onion supply. Many
farmers couldn’t sell their crops. The problem was that after so many years of selling very
easily, almost immediately after the harvest, they did not know how to store onion for a longer
time to sell it later on local or international markets for a better price.
I did not know much about the preservation of onion, in particular, in tropical climate, but I
was quite sure that such knowledge must exist somewhere and that it has been described in
some form. Well, I did some search on the Internet, and I found that a group of researchers at
the University of Michigan had been conducting research on the preservation of onions and
garlic in the tropical climate and elaborated simple methods that were tested with farmers.
There was a missing link that would allow for bringing the existing knowledge to farmers in
Maharshtra described in their language.
A farmer needs to know how to produce new and better crops and deliver them to the market;
an extension worker needs knowledge of new agricultural technologies; an administrator
needs to know new legislation and about governance; a decision maker needs the knowledge
relevant to developing new policies.
Defined practically, knowledge is the ability to take effective action [Dave Snowden]. This
means that just making information available is not enough - to become knowledge,
information has to be made to have some kind of effect. For example, unless a farmer can
understand information about fertilizers so that it can have a tangible effect on his crops, the
information is not knowledge.
The main issue is how to make knowledge available to those who really need it. In the age of
great scientific advances we appear to possess knowledge on just about everything. This
includes technical issues, social and political sciences and expertise in financial matters. But
if there is so much sophisticated and advanced knowledge, why it is so difficult to solve such
basic problems like providing clean drinking water, effective health care and education for
everyone, and eliminating hunger and poverty?
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Knowledge Management Basics
Why do we need knowledge management?
In any human activity we use knowledge, be it the knowledge of our ancestors on how to
cultivate the land, the knowledge described in books on how to perform mathematical
calculations or the knowledge on how to govern acquired by a young prince from his father the
king. Knowledge is ultimately a human faculty and resides in human minds. It is described
and transferred in some form. In this sense we deal with a description or representation of
knowledge. The tacit knowledge that cannot be explicitly described is shared/communicated
through direct contact between people, discussions, or teaching.
The handling of knowledge is not a new phenomenon. We have been collecting, describing,
organizing and sharing knowledge for millennia. The realization that knowledge is a critical
element has been heightened in recent years by the impact of information and
communication technologies, debates on more effective methods of using academic as well
as traditional knowledge, and immense opportunities for everybody to access sources of
knowledge at all levels.
In a complex world of today one can learn and acquire knowledge from many sources, but in
most cases we are flooded with information and not gaining enough knowledge. The solution
of development problems requires knowledge from many diverse domains and sources.
Effective organization and use of knowledge assets at all levels (individual, team,
institutional) requires processes to collect, codify, create, retain and disseminate knowledge
objects (i.e. objects that represent/describe knowledge such as books, manuals, computer
programs, maps, photographs), in short knowledge management.
For example, an institution responsible for developing policies in the natural resources sector
would need mange the knowledge described in geographical atlases, biodiversity surveys,
geological surveys, census databases, economic plans, documents concerning environmental
protection, etc. The institution should also know those who are the best specialists to be
consulted on specific issues concerning the NRM policies and in general where and how the
relevant knowledge can be obtained. What we really manage are the institution’s knowledge
processes, not the knowledge itself. The organization that introduced KM approaches agree
that KM is important for facilitating better decision-making processes, building the
intellectual capital of an organization, eliminating redundant processes and improving
operations, fostering better internal and external communication.
What is the relationship between data, information and knowledge?
The terms: data, information and knowledge are usually used interchangeably. However, in
the discussion on knowledge management and its practical implementations we need some
informal definitions to understand and explain the relationships, methods and tools.
The following simple examples illustrate definitions of data, information and knowledge.
Having an entity (record) composed of three items: Maguinda, 55, 15% completely out of
context, we may see them as just pieces of data, i.e. text and numbers representing some
facts, phenomena or objects in the real world. Data can be written/produced on paper or
represented inside a computer as sequences of zeros and ones. In today’s computer systems,
a datum (data item) can be a text, a number, a string of symbols, a picture, a voice/video
recording, or a drawing.
Data are formal representations of facts, objects or phenomena existing in the real
world or abstractions created by human mind.
Knowledge Management Basics
In the context of a population survey the above data become meaningful, i.e. – the name of a
village, the number of households below the poverty line and the percentage of adult people
who are illiterate. A local government can use this information when planning a poverty
eradication project or a computer program can produce a summary report based on a
collection of data records. In both cases the data become information (have a meaning) in the
context of a processor (person or machine/computer) that “understands” these data items.
Information is a data item presented in a context that allows inferring from and
about the meaning of the data by a human mind or by the machine.
The analysis of the population data in order to assess the level of poverty and propose
possible solutions to the problem requires knowledge. The first thing one has to know is how
to analyze the data; how the poverty is defined; what the possible ways to alleviate poverty
are; what the people’s reaction to poverty alleviation programs would be; who can help plan
and deliver a program, etc. In dealing with information we have explicit knowledge (facts,
procedures, experiences that can be described in documents and databases, encoded as
computer programs or presented by means of communication) and tacit knowledge
(judgments, insights, skills, beliefs, etc. that cannot be explicitly formulated but are critical
in understanding information and problems).
Information considered/processed/understood in order to solve a problem, take an
action or answer a question together with its broader context of related information
and actions is called knowledge.
We will not dwell any further on the definition of knowledge. There is no consensus on what
knowledge is and the discussion will probably continue as long as people will try to
understand how the human mind works and what the limits to human cognition are. In this
paper we take a very pragmatic approach to defining knowledge in the context of computerbased systems and practical applications of knowledge management. We concentrate on
methods and tools used to collect, codify, organize, retain, communicate and transfer
knowledge and thus to enhance the ability to use information to solve problems.
The main sources of difficulty with understanding and defining knowledge in the context of
computer-based systems are:
- the long history of associating knowledge with only the human mind (… and there is a
good reason for that since knowledge, in a broad sense, encompasses inferring/thinking ,
beliefs, logic, intuition, cognition, truths, intelligence);
- in practice, computer programs are a form of encoding of some knowledge (e.g.
arithmetic operations, analysis of chemical processes data, text formatting, playing
Knowledge in the context of a computer system is a representation (text, data structures,
structures of formal knowledge description languages) of facts, objects, phenomena,
abstractions (factual knowledge) and procedures/processes (procedural knowledge including
tacit knowledge). Representations allow automatic operations on knowledge (problem solving,
decision-making support, information retrieval, creating new knowledge, dissemination). We
may say that knowledge is the ability to solve problems and answer questions by retrieving
(possessing) relevant information. Intelligence is the ability to create new knowledge. These
working definitions should suffice for a general discussion.
What it means to manage knowledge?
The need for computer-based knowledge management systems was identified when large
companies realized that making huge databases and document repositories available was
insufficient for solving problems in environments where users’ knowledge of how to use the
data and how to extract relevant knowledge from documents was inadequate. Managing
codified knowledge is only one aspect of knowledge management and relatively easy to
Knowledge Management Basics
The main issue is the human factor in knowledge management and handling/sharing of tacit
knowledge. The term knowledge management has been criticized from the point of view that
one cannot “manage” the contents and processes of the human mind. However, on the
practical utilitarian ground we can talk about and implement systems that encompass people
and electronic tools to manage knowledge assets (factual and procedural knowledge
descriptions and human capabilities). To manage means to have effective control and to use
available resources to achieve an end. In this sense, knowledge management means having
control over knowledge assets and using knowledge management tools and methods in
applying and sharing knowledge to achieve the intended goals.
We realize that knowledge management is more than the maintenance of electronic
representations of facts and procedures and it must encompass the “management” of human
skills and attitudes, the recognition of tacit knowledge, the culture of sharing knowledge,
cognitive processes, etc. Ultimately, knowledge resides in people, not in machines and books.
The complexity of knowledge management systems lies in their diverse components and
internal and external relations.
Knowledge management is the judicious use of means of collecting, codifying,
processing, retaining and disseminating knowledge in order to achieve intended
There are many terms used in regards to operations on knowledge and knowledge attributes.
The literature and discussions on knowledge management include words such as acquire,
capture, learn, record, retain, and gather to denote the collecting of knowledge; describe,
encode, and model to denote the codification of knowledge; generate, create, organize,
develop, increase, verify, validate, synthesize, and reuse to denote the processing of
knowledge; demonstrate, communicate, educate, access, and distribute to denote the
dissemination of knowledge. When classifying knowledge, the following terms are used:
explicit, tacit, static, dynamic, factual, procedural, formal and indigenous. We will use these
terms assuming their intuitive meaning in the context of discussed problems.
Repositories of Knowledge Resources:
- Books, texts, manuals, and other media
- Libraries (physical and digital)
- Courses and other learning experiences
- Organizational processes and contexts
- Training and apprenticeship programs
- Professional knowledge and tradecraft of individuals, working groups, and associations, both
formal and informal
- News services
Methods and Tools
Knowledge management methods and tools include technical as well as non-technical
approaches. Technical tools are based on information and communication technologies. Nontechnical tools support knowledge sharing among people in a form of direct contacts.
• Knowledge Mapping
The knowledge map is a tool for presenting what knowledge resides where (e.g. people,
media, organizational units, sources of knowledge outside the organization) and what are the
patterns of knowledge flow (access, distribution, learning). Knowledge mapping is the first
step in creating the inventory of knowledge (i.e. the knowledge base) and developing the
processes of knowledge sharing
Knowledge Management Basics
• Yellow pages
The yellow pages facility is a structured collection of data and documents about people in the
organization. It includes an interface for obtaining information about the expertise, areas of
interest, publications and some personal data of the project stakeholders and associated
individuals. It also provides contact information. The purpose of yellow pages is to facilitate
communication and knowledge sharing between individuals and groups of people.
• Best practices
The best practices facility is a collection of structured documents that contain descriptions of
the best ways to do things or solve problems. The best practices knowledge base includes
software that supports the maintenance of the collection of materials (new cases, revisions,
supporting materials such as photos, maps, recordings), and formulation of queries. More
sophisticated software may include case-based reasoning engine that assists the user in
discovering potential solutions to new problems. In a basic form, the best practices facility is
a repository of descriptions of good work provided by project staff. The purpose of this is to
share the knowledge on what works and stimulate good solutions for new emerging problems.
The best practices facility will not usually give a prescription for a solution but it will
stimulate positive thinking and provide a base for analysis and identification of ways to do
Storytelling is the use of stories in organizations as a communication tool to share knowledge.
It is used in organizational settings to help people relate to and connect to important issues.
One important aspect of stories in an international development context is precisely that
stories provide the context in which knowledge arises as well as the knowledge itself. They
are not dry recommendations listed at the end of a long document. They are memorable, more
human and they nurture a sense of community and help build relationships.
While Denning’s book focuses on the use of stories to ignite organizational change, stories
can be used for a broad range of other purposes, including:
Storytelling for communications
Storytelling to capture tacit knowledge
Storytelling to embody and transfer knowledge
Use of stories for innovation
Storytelling to build community
Storytelling to enhance technology
Storytelling for individual growth
The infoDev/IICT Stories database is perhaps the most visible example of an attempt to
collect “stories” in the international development community. [There might be others; this is
more a reflection of my own knowledge areas]. See http://www.iicd.org/about
A Peer Assist is a meeting or a workshop where people are invited from other teams to share
their experience, insights and knowledge with a team who have requested some help. It is
appropriate when the cost of gathering the help brings significant potential benefits to a team
or project that is facing a challenge that others may be able to bring help to. It is appropriate
when the diversity of views external to the team or project can broaden the range of options
You may consider holding a Peer Assist when for example:
- your team is about to respond to a crisis similar to one that another team responded to last
- you are new to a role, about to tackle something difficult, and you are aware that others have
done it before;