Developing Knowledge

Old classroom.jpgHow do you develop knowledge?
Have you thought about it? The question is not how you learn, but how you develop knowledge. Perhaps it would be best to start off understanding what knowledge is.

What Is Knowledge?

I find the dictionary definition of knowledge lacking.

knowl·edge (from Websters)


1. Information and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.

2. What is known in a particular field or in total; facts and information.

Among philosophers, there is no clear, single definition of knowledge. It is almost an “I know it when I see it” kind of thing. Knowledge is an abstract idea, yet the word is a noun. Nouns are things; a noun is something of substance. If knowledge is an abstract, something that you cannot touch, taste, hear, or see, what makes it real? I know that I can feel knowledge. I can recognize someone who knows what they are talking about. Knowledge includes information, facts, descriptions, and much more. Knowledge includes the skills learned through experience, from the act of doing something. Knowledge can be formal, informal, systematic, or random.

Knowledge can be the implicit theoretical understanding of a subject area just as much as it can be the explicit practical application of information. Plato called knowledge a justified true belief.

While the word knowledge itself defies definitive definition, we can outline our cognitive understanding of the components and attributes of knowledge, of how we think and discuss knowledge, and how many of the world’s greatest thinkers have defined its attributes:

1. The genesis of knowledge is a problem, a conflict in our sphere of influence that we perceive to be in need of resolution. In marketing, this is the need in the market to be filled. In math, it is “solve for x.”

2. Knowledge is an organized structure or pattern of information. We gather facts by researching data, observing events, and reading the thinking of others. We organize that information into patterns for our individual understanding. These patterns may be confusing and meaningless to others, but they make perfect sense to us.

3. Knowledge has stamina; it tends to be long-lasting. We gather knowledge over long time frames.

4. Knowledge is relatively meaningful to specific individuals or groups. Knowledge about steam engines seems worthless to fashion designers. Our culture values specialized knowledge and discounts broad knowledge. However, we praise our greatest thinkers as renaissance men, people who possess knowledge and talents in many areas of expertise. When we call these thinkers "renaissance men," we pay homage to the great thinkers of the Renaissance, who mastered many talents.

5. Finally, knowledge comes through both introspection and experience. The ability to reason gives us the tools to consider different options, and to imagine the potential outcomes of each option. Experience guides our reasoning. Experience can be our own personal, practical application, the direct observation of the practical applications of others, or the study of the recording of others' efforts. Experience can be transferred, with potentially less impact on the quality or depth of knowledge.

Knowledge is the creation of thought. While we can train children with information, that information does not become knowledge until they think about the information and apply it in a practical sense. Math is an example of this; we do not really learn math until we apply it, until we do the work. In teaching math, the teacher takes their tacit knowledge and externalizes it, passing it to the student. The best teachers work with examples, involving the students in an explicit exercise that teaches them to apply the theory to solve problems on the board. The student, living the explicit experience of working the problem, turns the explicit information into a skill, and into internal tacit knowledge. The practical application of the new tacit knowledge tests and validates the knowledge, exposing the next level of knowledge opportunity, and the continuous loop of knowledge creation continues.

Information Is Not Knowledge, so IT Investment Is Not Knowledge Investment

Business leaders invest heavily in information technology in an effort to create knowledge. Information technology opens the door for efficient storage, transfer and use of data. Technology allows the collection, tabulation, and processing of data, an activity that was once called data processing, and is now known by the replacement term information management. Making what became huge investments, many business leaders once believed they were funding knowledge creation. But following our expanded definition, information is not knowledge. Many executives were disappointed when their investments in information technology failed to create knowledge.

What does knowledge creation require? While data and information are important in the creation of knowledge, neither data nor information creates knowledge spontaneously. There is a missing element, a missing activity, which catalyzes information into knowledge.

A Historical Misunderstanding?

Traditional 20th-century management typically focused on three resources:  land, capital, and labor. In the late 1950s, Peter Drucker recognized knowledge as a resource, writing about the growing breed of workers focused on the development of knowledge. Drucker dubbed these employees “knowledge workers.” This introduced the notion of knowledge as a resource, a notion that caught on slowly and grew in the second half of the 20th century. Even as the theory and practice of knowledge management sprang forth and serious academics began to study the art of creating knowledge, companies continued to struggle with the notion of knowledge creation.

Businesses today have a serious difficulty understanding the knowledge resource. Many companies do not understand what it takes to thrive in a knowledge-based economy. Could it be that business leaders do not understand knowledge itself, let alone how to create knowledge?

Research and development can be a source of knowledge, but they are not the only source. The opportunity for knowledge creation exists throughout any organization. Knowledge scales, and is just as much at home on the shop floor, on the sales floor, or on the warehouse floor as it is in the labs or the executive suite.

What Is More Important for Knowledge Creation:  People, Place, or Space?

Creating knowledge is a complex process requiring the interaction of people. These people take internalized tacit knowledge and communicate personally with other people, discussing, arguing, reasoning, until the knowledge becomes explicit to other people within the organization. It still is not knowledge until it has been successfully employed in a practical application. The application validates the knowledge, demonstrating that it is correct. Only when the knowledge is practically applied with feedback to the people is the process complete.

Generating knowledge becomes a human activity, and as such, we cannot separate the creation of knowledge from the understanding of how humans think and feel. Through the application of thoughts, ideas, hunches, and dreams, we create knowledge. This subjective process filled with human instinct and emotion does not require computers or machines. However, the use of computers and other information technology amplifies the process.

Knowledge is not static or unmoving like a rock; it is the result of living and breathing action. Knowledge is the product of energetic, ever-changing interactions among people. While many believe that the great philosophers and thinkers in history created knowledge alone, the truth is that they benefited from human contact. Aristotle, Plato, da Vinci, Descartes, Rousseau — all these great thinkers benefited from their human interactions. Yes, they wrote and pondered their deep thoughts. They also discussed these deep thoughts with the contemporaries of their time, over a glass a wine, a cup of tea, or dinner. In these discussions and interactions, the great philosophers expressed their tacit knowledge to others, and in the process, externalized their thinking. By talking out their ideas, their knowledge moved from implicit to explicit. Only through the effort of moving knowledge from tacit to explicit state, did their ideas see the light of day and breathe fresh air, taking root in the thinking of other people.

Creating Place and Space for Creating Knowledge

Businesses that successfully capture the art of creating knowledge grasp that knowledge is really an accumulation of value judgments. Ethics and aesthetics dominate the judgment. It changes the questions that companies must answer, such as, "How much should we make?" into questions that reflect more meaning, such as,"What should we make and why should we make it?" Knowledge-creating organizations constantly generate additional value for themselves and for the world by asking and answering the question, "Why do we exist?" on a daily basis.

Companies that create knowledge ask the most important question: "What is good?"

Business leaders who continue to ask the question, “What is good?” begin to understand that there is no single correct answer. Just as the knowledge itself defies simple definition, so does the quest for what is good.

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