All Life Is Problem Solving

Joe Firestone’s Blog on Knowledge and Knowledge Management

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Knowledge Sharing Is Not As Transparent As It Seems

July 15th, 2008 · No Comments


I think that most, if not all, current knowledge sharing programs do not distinguish those knowledge claims that are just information, from those knowledge claims that are knowledge, because they don’t know how to do so. And I also think that the consequence of this is that most, if not all, current knowledge sharing programs, are merely information sharing programs dressed up in the vocabulary of knowledge to give them more status.


Of course, there are many who don’t believe that knowledge inheres in documents, content, or linguistic networks, and therefore also don’t believe that one can distinguish knowledge from information in such networks, or should try to do so. So, for them that particular problem doesn’t exist. But, to the extent these executives define knowledge as something in the mind, there is an even greater complication for them. For such mental knowledge can’t be shared, because telepathy is not an option. What can be shared are knowledge claims, linguistic assertions, so if an executive takes the position that these cannot be knowledge because knowledge only exists in the mind, then that executive is tacitly admitting that “knowledge sharing” programs can’t possibly share knowledge. Yet executives who believe that knowledge exists only in the mind most probably don’t understand, that they don’t understand how such mental knowledge can be shared. So, again, the “knowledge sharing” idea that seems to them so “transparent,” turns out to not be transparent at all.


In the discussion so far, I’ve pointed to two groups of believers in knowledge sharing, those who believe that knowledge is contained in linguistic content, and those who believe that knowledge is some form of belief and that it is mental. Of course, still another group believes in both kinds of knowledge and even in biological knowledge such as synaptic structures and genetic codes. My own view of knowledge is called the Unified Theory of Knowledge ( and it states that biological, mental, and cultural knowledge all exist, and that only cultural knowledge can be shared. It also holds that cultural knowledge is the only kind of knowledge that can be “objective” in the sense that it is both sharable and criticizable.


People who believe only in mental knowledge have a problem with the categories of biological and cultural knowledge. This is relevant for “knowledge sharing,” because their belief that knowledge can only be mental creates, as I have argued above, the problem that there can be no “knowledge sharing.” An example, however, can show how this exclusive belief in non-sharable, subjective, knowledge in the mind, seriously violates intuition.


Suppose we have two physicists, a Professor in a well-known University and Albert Einstein, and we also have the Theory of General Relativity. Einstein’s published expositions of General Relativity offer statements whose content has withstood criticisms, tests, and evaluations for about 95 years now. But the Professor’s beliefs about General Relativity are his alone, and are tested only by his experience which is not directly sharable, since no one else has that experience. Thus, I think that what Einstein’s statements assert, are much closer to what we mean by knowledge, i.e. information of very high intersubjective quality, then are the Professor’s beliefs, which are not directly sharable with others and therefore have no intersubjective quality, either positive or negative at all.


Are Einstein’s expressions information? Of course, they are, but the Professor’s beliefs are information too. Just because these are information doesn’t mean that they are not knowledge. Knowledge is a form of information, specifically, it is information that has withstood criticisms, tests, and evaluations. It can be structured information (data) or it can be less structured information, or it can be relatively unstructured information, but in all cases it is not knowledge, in my view, unless it has survived better than its competitors under stress.


When the Professor is talking about his own beliefs he is sharing his knowledge. Analyzing this from the viewpoint of the Unified Theory, first, the Professor isn’t sharing his genetic or synaptic knowledge, i.e. his biological knowledge, since one can’t do that. Second, he’s not sharing his mental knowledge, i.e., either his psychological predispositions or his situational beliefs, since we lack telepathy, and there’s an epistemic gap between his mental beliefs and the statements he is offering.


Third, according to the Unified Theory he would be sharing “his” cultural knowledge only if the knowledge claims about Einstein’s Theory he’s offering, have withstood criticisms, testing, and evaluation in the past. If that’s not the case, then he’s not sharing “his knowledge,” even if he devoutly believes he is doing that. All he’s doing is putting forward some knowledge claims he says he believes in even though neither he nor we have any way of determining the correspondence of his mental beliefs with what he says he believes in.


In sum, though “Knowledge Sharing” is a term that appears to be more transparent than “KM,” it turns out that mental knowledge can’t be shared, and that cultural knowledge, while certainly sharable, needs to be distinguished from information if anyone is to know or measure just what knowledge has been shared in any situation. And further, at this point, those who believe that knowledge may be found in documents, or more generally, in networks of knowledge claims are not distinguishing cultural knowledge from cultural information and don’t appear to know how to do so. To gain this knowledge will require acceptance of a theory of knowledge that distinguishes it from information. But developing and accepting such a theory gets one as, or more deeply into the philosophical weeds, than does the task of defining KM itself. So, the supposed advantage of shifting to “knowledge sharing,” specifically, being able to talk to people in in terms of a concept that they can easily understand, is an illusion. People think they understand what they mean by “knowledge sharing,” but unless they intend to equate it with cultural information sharing, they are mistaken, and the term “knowledge sharing,” in the end, turns out to be as opaque as KM itself.

Tags: KM Techniques · Knowledge Integration · Knowledge Management