Originally published April 13, 2015

I generally don’t spend time trying to define knowledge and knowledge management. Such attempts can lead to long, unsatisfying, and ultimately useless debates. And I definitely avoid referring to a continuum of data, information, knowledge (and sometimes wisdom), often represented in the form of a pyramid. I don’t find any value in this.

I use this definition of knowledge, often attributed to Peter F. Drucker:

The knowledge that we consider knowledge proves itself in action. What we now mean by knowledge is information in action, information focused on results.

And this definition of knowledge management (KM) from Ellen Knapp, former Chief Knowledge Officer of Coopers & Lybrand:

Knowledge management is the art of transforming information and intellectual assets into enduring value for an organization’s clients and its people.

I add these statements about KM:

  1. The purpose of knowledge management is to foster the reuse of intellectual capital, enable better decision making, and create the conditions for innovation.
  2. KM provides people, processes, and technology to help knowledge flow to the right people, at the right time, so they can act more efficiently, effectively, and creatively.
  3. Knowledge management enables Sharing, Innovating, Reusing, Collaborating, and Learning (SIRCL).

David Weinberger wrote in The Problem with the Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom Hierarchy:

The emphasis in all these cases is on knowledge being “actionable” because of the business context, and on knowledge being a refinement of information because that’s how we extracted value from data. That may be a useful way of thinking about the value of information, but it’s pretty far from what knowledge has been during its 2,500 year history. Throughout that period, Plato’s definition has basically held: Knowledge is the set of beliefs that are true and that we are justified in believing. Indeed, we’ve thought that knowledge is not a mere agglomeration of true beliefs but that it reflects the systematic and even organic nature of the universe. The pieces go together and make something true and beautiful. More, knowledge has been the distinctly human project, the exercise of the highest and defining capabilities of humans, a fulfillment of our nature, a transgenerational treasure that it is each person’s duty and honor to enhance.

Nick Milton wrote:

‘Knowledge sharing and reuse’ is better than ‘Knowledge sharing,’ but you need to add Knowledge Creation to the list as well, and probably Knowledge Synthesis, and definitely Knowledge Seeking, so by the time you say ‘Knowledge creation and seeking and sharing and synthesis and reuse’ you might as well say ‘Knowledge management.’ Knowledge Management does not imply the management of pieces of knowledge, any more than Time Management means the management of pieces of time.

Etienne Wenger-Trayner said:

If by “manage” we mean to care for, grow, steward, make more useful, then the term knowledge management is rather apt.

My former HP knowledge management colleague, Bruce Karney, wrote the following in 2005. I reproduce it here so that it will continue to be accessible.

Definitions by Bruce Karney

People often speak and write about knowledge management without defining “knowledge” or “knowledge management” in terms that make sense to business people. We would like to offer some definitions which we hope you will find both reasonable and useful.

Knowledge is the mental capacity for effective performance. Knowledge as defined here can be ascertained by paper-and-pencil testing. The pure unit of measure of knowledge is accurate answers, but in many situations we judge knowledge based on both speed and accuracy.

Skill is the physical capacity for effective performance. Skill can only be determined by physical demonstration. For a child to know the letters of the alphabet in their proper order is an example of knowledge; to be able to speak them out loud in an intelligible fashion is an example of a skill.

Attitude is the emotional capacity for effective performance. Using the word “attitude” in this way seems odd to many, though not to most educators. Feel free to use “temperament” or “disposition” if you prefer them — they all describe the same basic idea. A child of 5 who can rattle off the alphabet for his parents, but freezes when other adults are around, is not lacking knowledge or skill, just the attitude/temperament/disposition to perform that particular task.

Ignorance is the converse of knowledge; it can be defined as the lack of mental capacity for effective performance.

Learning is the process by which knowledge and skills increase.

Each of the five words defined above can be preceded by “Personal” or “Organizational.” For example, if you say “Such and such an organization is too soft on poor performers,” you are describing a flaw in its Organizational Attitude.

These four derived terms must also be defined before we define KM itself.

  • Relevant knowledge [for an individual] is knowledge needed to optimally perform his or her job.
  • Irrelevant knowledge is knowledge that doesn’t matter for optimal performance of an individual’s job duties.
  • Relevant ignorance is any lack of relevant knowledge. The very good news is that most people have very little of this. The bad news is that it can be very hard to pinpoint just what a person or organization’s relevant ignorance is.
  • Irrelevant ignorance is any lack of knowledge not related to an individual’s job tasks. We all have vast amounts of this.

Now we can define “inability,” which is different from ignorance. Inability is the converse of skill. Inability is the situation in which a person or organization that cannot perform effectively despite having all relevant knowledge related to the task to be performed. Inability is usually eliminated by practice, whether in simulated, controlled, or real-world environments. The relevant aphorism is “practice makes perfect.”

Now, there is only one more piece of the picture to paint. When knowledge and skill are present, lack of performance is usually caused by one or more of these factors:

  • motivation (don’t want to perform)
  • the work environment (prevented from performing by environmental factors)
  • lack of role models (an environmental problem in which the feedback loop about what constitutes good performance is broken; listed separately because it is so insidious)

If we consider temperament to be beyond the influence and control of the organization, then we can define knowledge management.

Knowledge Management is the process of improving the job performance of knowledge workers by eliminating relevant ignorance and inability as quickly and inexpensively as possible AND providing the proper environment, motivation and role models.

This simple definition encompasses a very broad range of worthy activities, including:

  • identifying internal or external proven practices and adopting them as standards
  • making sure that useful innovations move quickly throughout the organization
  • useful training efforts
  • internal communication and journalism
  • managing, coaching and mentoring

Knowledge Management is simply management — of people and of processes — in any organization that is predominantly made up of knowledge workers. Because knowledge resides in people, knowledge management is people management — and must address the hearts, as well as the brains, of the workforce.

Epistemology, Ontology, and Taxonomy

Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and scope of knowledge. It addresses questions such as:

  • What is knowledge?
  • How is knowledge acquired?
  • To what extent is it possible for a given subject to be known?

Ontology is the philosophical study of the nature of being, existence, or reality, as well as the basic categories of being and their relations; deals with questions of:

  • What entities exist or can be said to exist?
  • How can such entities be grouped, related within a hierarchy, and subdivided according to similarities and differences?

An ontology identifies and distinguishes concepts and their relationships. It describes content and relationships.

A taxonomy formalizes the hierarchical relationships among concepts and specifies the term to be used to refer to each. It prescribes structure and terminology.


  1. information — such as documents, web content, etc.
  2. relationship — knowing someone else to get your job done
  3. skill — the know-how that could be obtained through training
  4. experience — job exposure and practice over time
  5. method — the way of getting work done that is not documented
  6. talent — the in-built stuff in a person that gives them the flair to do well

Knowledge Management is the use of enablers to mobilize these knowledge elements in context, so as to complete work efficiently and/or spark innovation. The inner core of the diagram shows some enablers KM. The outer core shows the KM process. In fact the KM process is not always sequential as per shown. For example, internalization can happen directly from sharing without leveraging if there is trust between both parties. With technology, information could be captured and leverage by someone else even though the content owner didn’t mean to share it. And there are other permutations. Thus, KM happens when the right mix of KM process is supported with the appropriate enablers.

  1. KM Defined — Knowledge management is the creation, transfer, and exchange of organizational knowledge to achieve a [competitive] advantage. We have gathered a collection of more than 100 KM definitions. We have very deliberately provided a broad selection of KM definitions: some are from academics, while others are from practitioners, some are from government, others from the for profit sector, and still others are from the not for profits. We also tried to include definitions from a variety of countries.
  2. Defining knowledge management: Toward an applied compendium
  1. KM Definitions
  2. KM and Learning: A Matter of Definition
  3. Semantic nitpicking? It’s not just in KM
  4. KM Definitions — Another Point of View
  5. Knowledge and Information: a Discussion
  6. Knowledge vs. Information: More Discussion
  7. Why Data is not Information is not Knowledge
  8. Definitions of KM
  9. Returning to Definitions
  1. The Philosophical Trinity
  2. Knowledge
  3. Information
  4. Data
  5. Knowledge theory
  6. Which Knowledge Management School Do You Belong To?
  7. Knowledge Is Whatever We Believe It To Be!
  8. Is the Word “Knowledge” Content-Free?



Stan Garfield

Knowledge Management Author and Speaker, Founder of SIKM Leaders Community, Community Evangelist, Knowledge Manager https://sites.google.com/site/stangarfield/