Knowledge Life Cycles

In the analysis of over 100 KM programmes for the book Knowledge Networking[1], two main approaches were identified:

  • Better sharing of existing knowledge - knowing what you know. Examples include sharing best practice, avoiding "reinventing the wheel", and the use of intranets as portals into core knowledge that is widely shared.
  • Faster or smarter innovation - creating and commercializing new knowledge. This involves converting ideas into valuable products, services or processes, either internally or for external sale.

We can represent the evolution of knowledge in these two approaches as two life cycles:

knowledge cycles

Please note - these are generic and high level representations. In practice, continual iteration through different levels of aggregation means that the actual paths between specific processes are often more complex than those shown.

The Innovation Cycle

This shows the evolution the generation of ideas (unstructured knowledge) into more structured and reproducible knowledge, embedded within processes or products. Some of the key processes are:

  • Create. An idea for a new product, process or strategy is created. These are discussed and formalised to initiate a new cycle of innovation.
  • Codify. The ideas are codified, such as in a product design or a process description. The original idea is now more structured and transferable.
  • Embed. At this stage (for a product) the knowledge is encapsulated in a prototype, or for a process made part of an organizational procedures.
  • Diffuse.Products reach the market; processes are widely practiced throughout the organization. Application of the embedded knowledge generates ideas for improvements, and so the cycle repeats.

The Knowledge Sharing Cycle

These are the processes associated with gathering and disseminating existing knowledge. For most KM programmes, this is the primary focus. Knowledge is stored in one or more repositories, such as computer storage for explicit knowledge and people's heads for tacit knowledge. The descriptors below relate mostly to explicit knowledge. In our pages on information management (forthcoming) we show a more complete variation of this cycle using IM terminology - the Information Life Cycle.

  • Create/collect. New knowledge is created or existing knowledge is gathered. A knowledge audit is a good technique for discovering what exists.
  • Organize/store. The knowledge is classified and stored, perhaps using a company specific taxonomy. This makes subsequent retrieval easier.
  • Share/disseminate. Information may be 'pushed' to people as part of routine dissemination or it may be simply 'parked' in information repositories for individuals to access it when needed. For tacit knowledge, this part of the cycle involves knowledge transfer activities such as meetings.
  • Access. Individuals browse or search their organization's information and document repositories, typically via an intranet. Users 'pull' the information when they need it.
  • Use/exploit. They use this knowledge to carry out specific tasks. As they use it the knowledge is evaluated, refined and improved. As a result new knowledge is created and the cycle repeats.


The knowledge cycles provide a good basis for considering the effectiveness of various information and knowledge development and sharing processes. In particular they can be useful for:

  • Pinpointing areas of strength and weaknesses, and hence what skills or systems need improvement
  • Creating dialogue over how different people and different parts of the organization manage their information and knowledge
  • Identifying particular bottlenecks in information and knowledge processing
  • Highlighting opportunities to capture and disseminate best practice in information and knowledge management.

As an example of the latter, I used the knowledge sharing cycle (expanded with additional and more specific processes) in a workshop with a professional group of one of my clients. For each process, a group of two or three were instructed to find out more about the techniques involved and find examples of best practice within their organization. This htye then wrote up a short guide and presented their findings at a subsequent workshop. All were amazed at how much good KM practice was actually going on in particular pockets within their organization, but which had not been formally documented or widely communicated.

1. Knowledge networking: Creating the Collaborative Enterprise, David J Skyrme, Butterworth-Heinemann (1999). See Knowledge Networking pages (archive site with updates).

Last updated: 19th February 2011


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