Knowledge: Content or Context?
This, the second of a series of papers on Managing Knowledge, looks at one of the major
debates in managing knowledge; the issue of content and context; at tacit and explicit
knowledge and at the “stickiness” of knowledge. Future articles will address the related
topics of intellectual and social capital, categorising, searching, learning and so on, and will
finally suggest a path towards exploiting knowledge for profit.
Content versus Context
One of the main discussions raging in academic circles today concerns the
content and context views of knowledge. Just think of how you use the
expression “taken out of context” to get an idea of its importance. In the
previous article I posited that knowledge implies a knower; the rest is
information. According to Davenport and Prusak1 “Since it is the value added
by people - context, experience and interpretation - that transforms data and
information into knowledge, it is the ability to capture and manage those
human additions that make information technologies particularly suited to
dealing with knowledge.” That position is very much on the context end of the
Other authors refer to codify versus
connect or product versus process.
Hansen, Nohria and Tierney2
suggest that the two approaches to
managing knowledge are
codification and personalization
and that the approach you take
depends on the type of company
you are. A standardised product
means a codification approach, whereas using intuition and know-how to
create innovative or customised product requires a personalization approach -
and you can’t codify intuition in a database (or at least I don’t think you can).
They strongly advise that you don’t “straddle” the approaches: You need to
decide which of these approaches suits your organisation and then stick to it.
For our type of organisation I think we need a combination of both
approaches at different times and/or for different roles. For instance, I often
hear people saying: “Let’s train the sales force in depth on this latest
product/service.” In truth, the salesman just wants to know enough to be
comfortable, and know that if an opportunity arises then he can go back to the
office, find some collateral information (codified knowledge), and then find the
name and phone number of someone who knows about it (personalised
knowledge). Knowledge transfer will then take place via conversation, and put
a context onto the codified information. There is obviously a cost, as well as
value, associated with this, which we’ll discuss later as part of the “knowledge
Continuing with our salesman example, think of the use of formal product
descriptions and case studies, both codified knowledge. He needs both, but
the product description only goes so far in helping him to sell. The case study
tells a story. It relates the product to what was achieved and the benefit
gained, and actually gives him something to sell – people buy solutions to
problems, not IT systems!
Anecdotal information transfers a similar kind of knowledge; an insight, a
context, and storytelling has become recognised as one of the main vehicles
for knowledge transfer. It doesn’t matter whether you are a leader explaining
corporate strategy3, a photocopier technician helping a colleague4, a wellengineer
in Shell5 or a change manager like Steve Denning6 attempting to
transform the World Bank, telling stories is a powerful way of transferring tacit
knowledge and eliciting action. Denning found that charts and models with
arrows explaining the value of knowledge management had “zero effect” –
“We’re a bank, right?” A simple story of only 29 words⊗ – 200 bytes –
became the springboard that led to the transformation of the bank. Denning’s
highly commended book has a complete method for crafting Springboard
stories, with connectedness, strangeness and comprehensibility.
Tacit and Explicit Knowledge
There are two generally recognised types of knowledge; tacit and explicit.
Tacit knowledge is that “soft” stuff we have been talking about, which is very
difficult to codify, and the “harder” explicit knowledge could be defined as that
which we can externalise, store and pass on to others.
Tacit knowledge resides in peoples’ heads, and is the context in which we
view information. We often don’t realise that we are applying it, and couldn’t
really say what it was if asked. It’s why an expert is an expert, for want of a
better explanation. It’s why some people can find and fix problems that the
manual doesn’t describe, and it tends to be transferred from person to person
rather than by writing it down.
⊗ In June 1995, a health worker in Kamana, Zambia, logged on to the CDC Web site in Atlanta and got the answer to
a question on how to cure malaria.
http://www.knowledgeboard.com Page 2
Nonaka and Takeuchi7 present
this now-classic diagram
depicting the relationship
between tacit and explicit
knowledge. Tacit knowledge is
transferred to others by
teamwork and coaching in a
process called socialisation, or
what used to be called “sitting
next to Nellie”.
If we capture and share the tacit
knowledge we externalise it,
creating explicit knowledge. This, in turn, can be “systemised” and classified,
a process called combination. And finally, explicit knowledge can be
internalised by understanding, or learning, to complete the cycle and create
My colleague Nic Holt points out that this diagram doesn’t highlight what he
calls “hidden knowledge”; information that is accessible, but its creator didn’t
recognise, or could not have foreseen, its relevance or value in a new or
Sticky and Leaky Knowledge
Nonaka and Takeuchi’s theory is now, I understand, under attack from
various quarters. It does present, however, a good framework in which to
consider knowledge transfer and sharing.
The “stickiness” of knowledge is both its value as a source of competitive
advantage and a huge problem in terms of trying to share knowledge within
organisations. This stickiness can perhaps explain why it is so hard to buy
knowledge through buying people: They and their knowledge are embedded
into the context and culture of the organisation and planting it into a different
culture may prevent it flourishing. Nietzsche put it very nicely: “A man has no
ears for that to which experience has given him no access.” The CEO of the
innovative Chapparal Steel said that he had no problem with competitors
touring their plant. Chapparal, he said, is willing to show just about everything
"and we will be giving away nothing because they can’t take it home with
Even within organisations it can be well nigh impossible to transfer
knowledge. One frustrated manager is reported to have said4 “We can have
two plants right across the street from each other and it’s the damnedest thing
http://www.knowledgeboard.com Page 3
to get them to transfer best practice.” The “not invented here” syndrome is
alive and well.
On the other hand knowledge leaks out of organisations like a sieve. Ireland’s
growth as a software centre is to some extent dependent on this: Michael
Porter’s cluster theory won’t work without this leakage.
The reason it happens may be that people are closer to their external
communities than to the rest of their organisations. Knowledge is in people’s
heads, and conversations transfer it, for instance in the pub or at a barbecue.
If you want knowledge transfer to happen at the office you need to think about
giving people time and place to have a conversation! And remember,
knowledge walks out the door every evening!
Fusing Content and Context
Despite the advice of Hansen et al (above) to choose either codification or
personalisation approaches there are many who believe - as I do - that we
need a bit of both. For example, KnowNet9 was an EC funded project that
attempted to merge the content and context, or in its terminology the product
and process, views of the world.
The diagram below attempts to explain the fusion of process and content10.
Rather than knowledge, KnowNet identifies “knowledge objects” that are
stored, organised, indexed and searched on the one hand and are input to
the knowledge management process on the other. Not identified here are the
essential knowledge assets; people. Knowledge assets operate on knowledge
objects to create knowledge.
These ideas are very similar
to the three essential
features of Knowledge
Management: identified by
Nick Willard11: “managing
people - since that is where
tacit knowledge is found;
managing processes - the
flow and conversion of
information - explicit
http://www.knowledgeboard.com Page 4
Marketing Director, ICL Ireland, http://www.icl.ie/
John has worked in the IT industry for over 25 years.
Currently marketing director with ICL Ireland, he has
worked as a consultant, in sales, as a project manager
and in technical support. Immediately prior to his current
appointment he was responsible for business
development in ICL's e-Innovation unit.
John was elected chairman of the Irish Internet
Association in January 2002. He was a member of the
Learning Advisory Group of the first Information Society
Commission, chairman of the E-Commerce Association
of Ireland, a founding member of Irish Computer Aided
Design Association, a director of the Irish Unix Users Group, director of the Irish
Computer Society and chairman of the OU MBA Alumni Association, as well as nonexecutive
director of Glockenspiel Ltd, which provided software development tools.
Awarded a BSc and MSc by the National University of Ireland, an MBA by the Open
University and a Master of IT by AIIM, he is a chartered engineer and a fellow of the
Irish Computer Society. His main research interest is managing knowledge.
In his spare time he goes fishing and gets lots of practical experience for his website
http://www.knowledgeboard.com Page 5
1 Davenport TH and Prusak L, 1998: Working Knowledge: Harvard Business
2 Hansen MT, Nohria N and Tierney T, 1999: What’s your strategy for
managing knowledge? HBR March-April]
3 Shaw G, Brown R and Bromiley P, 1998: Strategic Stories: How 3M is
Rewriting Business Planning; HBR May-June
4 Brown JS and Duguid P, 1999: The Social Life of Information; Harvard
Business School Press
5 Shell International Exploration and Production, 2001: Stories from the Edge
– Managing Knowledge the New Ways of Working within Shell’s Exploration
and Production Business
6 Denning S, 2001: The Springboard – How storytelling ignites action in
Knowledge-Era Organizations; Butterworth-Heinemann
7 Nonaka I & Tekeuchi H, 1995: The Knowledge Creating Company – How
Japanese Companies Create the Dynamics of Innovation; New York, Oxford
8 Leonard-Barton D, 1995: Wellsprings of Knowledge: Building and Sustaining
the Sources of Innovation. Harvard University Business School Press
10 Apostolou, Mentzas, Young and Abecker, 2000: Consolidating the Product
versus Process Approaches in Knowledge Management; www.know-net.org
11 Willard N: Cited in “Will The Real Knowledge Management Stand Up?”, I3
No. 27, Feb 1999 at www.skyrme.com
http://www.knowledgeboard.com Page 6
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