Part 1: What is knowledge, anyway - and why does it matter?

Knowledge and knowledge management

There is, unfortunately, no universally recognised definition of knowledge. People have been arguing about what knowledge is since the time of Aristotle and Plato – probably longer!

This matters for two reasons. First, our understanding of ‘knowledge’ determines the way we approach knowledge management. Second, if ‘knowledge’ can mean different things, how do we know whether we are talking about the same things when we talk about knowledge and knowledge management?

In studies of workplace knowledge, three different perspectives on knowledge have been identified:

  • The structural perspective treats knowledge as a resource that can be captured, accumulated and shared. Knowledge is essentially the same as information. Knowledge management based on structural thinking involves capturing knowledge so that it can be disseminated.
  • The process perspective treats knowledge as a process of knowing – something that is negotiated through social interactions between groups of people. We used to believe the earth was flat – and it took centuries of negotiation to change this accepted knowledge. Knowledge management based on process thinking encourages people to build relationships, networks and trust so that they will share knowledge when they need to.
  • The practice perspective has a lot in common with the process perspective, but recognises that there is a part of knowing about how to do something that we can learn only by doing it. Think of baking a cake: it takes practice to get it right. Knowledge management based on the practice perspective is rare. It includes getting people with different backgrounds together to solve problems, and use of algorithms that mine data to identify patterns in what people do.

The three perspectives can be thought of as increasing in sophistication (and, in most contexts, potential to add value) from structural to practice. This doesn’t mean the structural perspective has no value: information management is important; it just isn’t the whole knowledge management story.

The table summarises some of the characteristics of the three different perspectives.

  Structural perspective Process perscpective Practice perspective

Knowledge is a resource that can be captured, accumulated and shared. Knowledge is more a process of knowing than a 'thing'. It is negotiated in social interactions. There is a part of knowing how to do something that you can learn only by doing it.

Decision making

Individuals make independent, logical and reasoned decisions based on facts. The way people make decisions depends on the social setting and 'the way we do things round here'.

The way people make decisions is based on shared practical understanding of the work they do.

Where knowledge resides

Mainly in the heads of individuals, and in documents and processes.

Knowledge doesn't reside anywhere specific, it exists in social groups.

Knowledge doesn't reside anywhere, it is part of what people do.

Where knowledge
comes from

Knowledge is discovered by experts through scientific study.

Knowledge is created by groups of people reaching a shared understanding. Knowledge is created within and between groups of people who do similar work.

Typical approach to
knowledge management

Capture knowledge and disseminate it to people.

Encourage people to relationships, networks and trust so they will share knowledge.

Group people with similar backgrounds and work together to share knowledge. Create overlaps between these groups to solve problems.

Alignment between knowledge perspectives, approach to knowledge management and knowledge management practices

Lack of alignment between an organisation’s understanding of ‘knowledge’, its approach to knowledge management, and what it actually does to manage knowledge can lead to confusion, misunderstandings and poor focus.

approach to knowledge management

Sometimes organisations make a conscious decision to adopt an approach that doesn’t match its understanding of knowledge. Organisations that run projects over very long timescales – the nuclear power industry, for example – might choose to adopt a ‘capture’ approach because knowledge has to be shared between several generations of people, even if the organisation has a more sophisticated understanding of knowledge.

Some organisations adopt a ‘capture’ approach as a first step in knowledge management. This isn’t usually the best place to start knowledge management, as it can lead to confusion between knowledge and information that makes it difficult to change the approach later on.

Survey results: perspectives on knowledge

We asked people 33 questions about their understanding of knowledge, then analysed the results to identify each respondent’s dominant perspective. As individuals, most people have a process understanding of knowledge. 

When the views of individuals who work for the same organisation are combined to give the prevailing perspective in each organisation, the process view is even more dominant. In some organisations, this is simply because the ‘process’ thinkers outnumber people with the other perspectives. In other organisations, though, there is strong agreement between individuals about the meaning of ‘knowledge’. Often this coincides with strong leadership of knowledge management and clear definitions of knowledge and knowledge management.  This indicates that what organisations do to manage knowledge influences individuals’ understanding of what knowledge is.

Knowledge management survey results

Individuals’ perspectives on knowledge

Survey results for knowledge management

Organisations’ prevailing perspectives on knowledge

Survey results: perspectives on knowledge and perceived approach to knowledge management

We asked people to identify their organisations’ overall approach to knowledge management. For the two organisations in which the prevailing perspective on knowledge was unclear, one had a process approach to knowledge management and the other had a mixed, unclear approach. For the organisations with a prevailing process understanding of knowledge, the results were mixed:

Approach to knowledge management: organisations with a prevailing process perspective on knowledge

Only 65% of the organisation with a process understanding of knowledge had a matching process approach to knowledge management. What is going on?

Next month...
To find out more about what is going on, next month’s article will look at knowledge management practices – what the organisations actually do to manage knowledge. Will these be aligned to the organisations’ stated approach to knowledge management?

What’s your perspective on knowledge?

Use the table in the article to identify your dominant perspective on knowledge. Are you a structural, process or practice person? Or is your understanding of knowledge a mixture of more than one perspective?

What’s your organisation’s approach to knowledge management?

Use the table to identify your organisation’s overall approach to knowledge management. Does it match your personal understanding of ‘knowledge’? If not, why do you think this is?

Additional resources:

  1. An Analysis of Knowledge Management in PMBOK® Guide Article by Stanislaw Gasik
  2. Think you know knowledge? Article by Judy Payne in Project magazine, Jan 2014
  3. Knowledge SIG in the APM blog
  4. Webinar recording: Knowledge management in project-based organisations
  5. We really need to talk about knowledge management, Knowledge SIG Courageous Conversation video with Charles Egbu.


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