The concept of infinity, something with no beginning and no end, is abstract. How far does space go before it ends? No one knows; so it must be infinite. How small is the smallest particle? How large the largest object?
Where does an idea start? Where does knowledge start?
Philosophers — what you could call professional thinkers — ponder these questions. So do I, in my search for a way to understand the process of developing knowledge, and my search for a way to teach others how to build organizations that discover and create knowledge.
Going back to Webster’s definition...
Information and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.
One reason I find this definition lacking is the word acquired. Can I go to the store and buy knowledge? Does attending a class about inventory management mean that I acquire all of the knowledge presented therein? Can years of performing the same job mean that I have knowledge of the art? Maybe is the answer to all three of these questions. I can gain knowledge by going to the store and listening to the features of an item. At school I can learn information that improves my comprehension of inventory data patterns. I can develop new techniques by performing the same job over time.
Just because I acquire a skill or information about a specific topic does not mean I possess knowledge that has value. The acquisition of information or skill alone is insufficient. There is no guarantee that I will gain sufficient knowledge in any of these cases.
What is sufficiency and why is it important? What is sufficient knowledge of a subject? Look at the second phrase in Webster’s definition: “the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject.” Without understanding the subject, how can you tell if the information or skill is superior? The single word that I have the most problem with in this definition is or.
You probably work with someone who has lots of book knowledge, but can’t apply it correctly in practice. You know someone who can do a job, but cannot tell you why they do some of the steps involved in the task. I believe that real knowledge must include the theory and the practice, the why behind the what. If you do not understand why you do a specific part of a process, that task loses meaning and value. Without understanding the practical effort behind the execution of a concept, there is no feedback to validate the theory. Understanding both the theory and the practice is a requirement for real knowledge.
Therefore, I believe there is a point of inception, a moment of genesis of knowledge. It is the point at which a person gains understanding of both the theory and the practical skills concerning a specific subject.
Discovery is the activity of gathering information. We can be fed information, but often the information we value the most is information that we believe we have discovered. The thrill of discovery is amplified by the emotion that comes from ownership, the sense that “I discovered this!” We seldom get as excited about reading information as we do about discovering it.
The emotional amplification of discovery can distort the true importance of the information. When information is tied with emotion, we either find it hard to let go or find it almost impossible to accept. Our emotional attachment to our ideas will set us in opposition to another idea, even if it’s a better one. Just as strong is our impulse to reject ideas that come from someone toward whom we feel animosity; we hate the idea because it’s Bob’s idea, and we hate Bob. Those distortions of perception stand in the way of knowledge.
Reason steps in to wage battle with these emotions. Cold, dispassionate reason holds the emotions back, discounts the attachment. Without strong discipline, the best way for reason to check emotion is for the reason to come from external sources.
Discovery is not knowledge. Discovery and reason together are the building blocks of knowledge. Knowledge creation is not a solitary effort of internal thought; it requires interaction with other people to create valuable knowledge.
If knowledge creation is a product of both internal thought and social interaction, the notion of balance comes into question. How much individual internal effort and how much social interaction, and how do you strike the proper balance?
Michael Polanyi, a researcher and writer about knowledge creation, wrote in 1966, “We can know more than we tell,” when he classified human knowledge into two categories: explicit and tacit.
Explicit knowledge is codified knowledge that is transmittable in formal language. Basically, it is knowledge that you can talk about or write about. This article that you are reading right now is an example of explicit knowledge. This is discrete knowledge, digital, captured in records of the past, libraries, archives, and writings, accessed in a sequential form.
Deeply rooted in action, commitment, and involvement in a specific context, tacit knowledge dwells in the comprehensive understanding and cognition of an individual. For an individual, tacit knowledge is difficult to put into words, and so is often expressed in the individual’s work. Tacit knowledge is an individual's images of reality, their visions for the future, what they believe is and should be.
Following Polanyi’s thinking, individuals create knowledge at the fundamental level, from their unique viewpoints. Without individuals, an organization cannot create knowledge. If you believe that the purpose of an organization is to support its creative individuals, providing the context for those individuals to create knowledge, then the group must support and respect the thinking of every individual. Therefore, organizations must create processes that help amplify the knowledge created by individuals, and they must accept that the role of the organization is to help build a knowledge network, connecting individuals to the distribution of knowledge.
Organizations consist of both formal and informal structures. The organization chart of any company is a symbolic representation of the formal structure within. Hidden behind that organization chart is the shadow organization of leadership and connection. There is a shadow leadership structure in every organization. There is a high degree of alignment between the official and its shadow in a healthy organization. When the shadow is discordant with the official, problems exist.
There are official and unofficial channels of communication. The larger the organization, the more complex the web of connections. If you chart the hidden connections in the shadows, you will find an amazing set of degrees of separation based on the social needs of the individuals and the operational needs of the organization. Rarely do the actual communications connections between a company and its suppliers, its customers, or its service providers mimic the official organization chart. Dig below the surface, and a completely different web of direct communication channels exists.