Characteristics of Knowledge

When we talk of managing knowledge, what are we really managing? A strict definition of knowledge might imply we are managing only that in people's heads. But that suggests that knowledge management is an oxymoron (see this article). However, our broader definition includes all levels of the knowledge hierarchy, including explicit knowledge or information.

Information vs. Knowledge

Let's first consider some distinctions between explicit and tacit knowledge

Explicit (Information) Tacit
Tangible Intangible
Physical objects, e.g. in documents or databases Mental objects, i.e. it's in people's head's
Processing changes representation Processing changes understanding
Context independent Context affects meaning
Easily shared Sharing involves learning
Reproducible Not identically replicated

So it is apparent that some differences in approach are needed according to the type of knowledge we are managing/


We often talk of knowledge as an asset. But compared to other assets, such as physical assets and finance, it has some distinctive characteristics:

  • Non-depleting: unlike other resources that are managed because of their scarcity value, the more knowledge is used, the more is generated; we all know about 'information overload'!
  • Win-win sharing: if you share your knowledge with another person, the first person does not lose it
  • Chunkable and portable: it can be summarized, compressed or divided in manageable units for easier transfer and management
  • Transferable: it can move from place to place; explicit knowledge, in particular, can easily be distributed via networks to many people
  • Mobile: it tends tends to leak and diffuse, either as people move jobs, talk or through technical reproduction and transmission
  • Substitutable: in many situations it can replace physical and other forms of resource; thus telecommunications reduces the need for travel or physical transport (of documents).

Naturally, some of these characteristics are more evident with explicit knowledge, e.g. ease of transfer and mobility. However, tacit knowledge exhibits the other characteristics, and combined with its distinctiveness (from the table above), its intangibility makes it difficult to identify and describe.

However, like other assets, it does have value, though this can be difficult to measure - see our section on valuing knowledge. Also, it may depreciate over time. The rapid rate of generation of new knowledge means that much existing knowledge has a short 'half-life'. How short depends on the type of knowledge and how many people are working in the same domain. Therefore any knowledge (or information) needs constant review, refreshing and revalidating through use.

Managing Knowledge

These characteristics and differences present some interesting management challenges.

For explicit knowledge, it is more readily copied, diffused and shared. On the other hand how do you convey real understanding? We give some ideas elsewhere. Also, the sheer volume poses challenges of organizing and categorizing this knowledge so that it can be easily retrieved when needed. This raises the challenges of how much to automate, e.g. in summarizing and tagging content, versus relying on social knowledge sharing within communities of practice.

But since most of an organization's important knowledge is tacit, this raises the question of what approaches to take to manage it to maximum effect. How much do you convert into explicit knowledge? What mechanisms do you put in place so that person-to-person interaction and knowledge sharing is encouraged where it has the most benefit?

Last updated: 1st March 2011


Think you know the basics of KM? Perhaps you do, but check out 10 Myths and Facts about KM. Although written in 1999, most are still true today.


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